RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — When it comes to marijuana, Virginia has lagged behind many states where the drug has been decriminalized or legalized for recreational use.
With lawmakers approving an expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program in 2018, supporters of decriminalization are hoping that momentum will continue in 2019. But Virginia Republicans don’t appear willing to support decriminalization.
As the General Assembly gears up for a new legislative session starting Jan. 9, Democratic state Sen. Adam Ebbin has submitted a bill to decriminalize simple marijuana possession — defined as ½ ounce or less — and provide a maximum civil penalty of $50 for a first violation. The current law carries a jail sentence of up to 30 days and a maximum $500 fine for a first offense.
“Will Virginia eventually decriminalize personal possession of marijuana? Yes. Will it be in 2019? That’s very unlikely,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana has been introduced in Virginia for years, but has always died in committee. Pedini said the House and Senate Courts of Justice committees are made up largely of Republicans — some with law enforcement backgrounds — making it difficult to build support for decriminalization or legalization.
With every member of the General Assembly up for re-election in November 2019, the reform movement is hoping for additional Democratic gains and a push for legalization in 2020. Democrats picked up 15 additional seats in the House in 2017.
“Cannabis policy will be the loudest it’s ever been on the campaign trail in 2019,” Pedini said.
But during the 2019 legislative session, those in favor of decriminalization can expect a similar level of opposition to what they faced in 2018. Prosecutors and police remain opposed to decriminalization.