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Marijuana Decriminalized in Virginia, But Not Legal?

On May 21, 2020, Governor Northam signed a bill that decriminalizes marijuana possession in Virginia. This law doesn’t take effect until July 1, 2020, just like many other bills that have been passed in Virginia this year. Every year Virginia’s elected officials get together in Richmond for a month or two to decide which laws make the cut and then on July 1, the laws that are passed by the Virginia legislature take effect. Kind of nice to know what laws are coming your way and when it’ll start, eh? So, what does this new marijuana law do? Well, previously, if you were charged with simple marijuana possession, which is a misdemeanor, and you were found guilty, then you’d have a criminal record. If convicted, your fingerprints would be taken and your information uploaded into the Virginia Criminal Information Network (VCIN) which then gets shared to the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC; also known as the FBI database for criminals). This would lead to a lot of closed doors regarding employment, property rental, education, and parental rights. So, by decriminalizing marijuana, all that negative stigma and problems that come with a marijuana conviction – which studies have shown unfairly targets people of color – are supposed to be no more. Yet, decriminalizing marijuana doesn’t mean it is legal. I repeat, marijuana will NOT be legal in Virginia starting July 1, 2020. Decriminalization of marijuana only means it’s no longer a criminal charge and jail is not a possibility. It merely reduces the penalties by making the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana a civil violation (versus the prior misdemeanor) that can only be punished by a maximum $25 fine. However, it is important to note that while there is no arrest or booking that leads to a criminal record, an officer will still write you up if you are caught with marijuana.

I personally didn’t think that simple possession of marijuana would be decriminalized in Virginia this soon. Not that Virginia is considered the most progressive or the most conservative state, but I just thought it would be closer to being the 47th state, rather than the 27th state, to decriminalize marijuana. It is nice to see the governor actually doing what he promised to do, especially when this is one of the results the people who elected him wanted. Virginia’s wave of criminal justice reform is making strides. This new law won’t affect the vast majority of us. In fact, most of us won’t be affected one bit, but some people are worried that decriminalizing marijuana will have ripple effects that will affect people in a non-direct way. For example, I’ve smelled marijuana at public parks when I’m walking with my children. Could more people be smoking marijuana in parks because they know they won’t be arrested and just given $25 tickets? What about people who have drug addiction? Knowing that society has a softer view on marijuana, will it increase its usage? Only time will tell if this was a good move, but one thing is for sure – it is big news and many people are rejoicing. Next step, legalization.

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