Legalize it? State lawmakers consider pot laws

While legalized recreational marijuana might not be coming to the Commonwealth soon, that doesn’t mean it isn’t an issue of importance for Virginia lawmakers.

State Senator Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria) has already introduced two decriminalization proposals in the Virginia Senate this session.

Under current Virginia law, possession of marijuana is classified as a Class 1 misdemeanor and punishable by a maximum $500 fine and maximum sentence of thirty days in jail for a first offense.

Ebbin’s Senate Bill 104 could decriminalize possession of marijuana and enact a civil penalty of no more than $100 for the first violation.

The bill creates a presumption that an individual found to have less than an ounce of marijuana intends to use it for personal use and not for distribution. This is significant in that it greatly reduces the punishment that can be given to an individual found in possession of marijuana.

While SB 104 stalled in the Senate Committee for Courts of Justice, Ebbin and supporters of the measure including Senator John Edwards, D-Roanok, plan to push the measure again.

Ebbin’s SB 327, would revise the existing provision that a person lose their driver’s license for six months when convicted of simple possession of marijuana. This bill, unlike SB 104, has made progress through the General Assembly.

The bill was passed in the Virginia Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support. With crossover of each house’s legislation in the General Assembly last week, the bill faces debate in the House of Delegates.

Many lawmakers, both at the state and national level, have begun looking at marijuana and how it plays into the criminal justice system.

As an issue gaining bipartisan attention, advocates of criminal justice reform such as U.S. senators Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have started examining how sentencing laws for marijuana and the war on drugs affects the nation’s criminal justice system.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 52 percent of all drug arrests in 2010 were for marijuana and a majority of those were for simple possession.

The ACLU also notes that, despite blacks and whites using marijuana at about the same rate, black citizens are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Several efforts have been made at the national level to legalize marijuana both recreationally and for medical purposes, however, few have made much progress.

Congressman Morgan Griffith, R-VA, who represents much of Southwest Virginia in the House of Representatives, introduced a bill two years ago which would have legalized medicinal marijuana at the federal level.

While Griffith’s bill failed, he has remained a vocal advocate for its legalization for medicinal purposes, supporting both national bills and state-level lawmakers.

More recently, Representative Jared Polis, D-Colorado, unsuccessfully introduced a bill last year that would have regulated marijuana at the federal level the same way that alcohol is regulated.

Recreational marijuana now is legal in four states: Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Colorado. Medicinal marijuana, however, is legal in 23 states across the U.S.

Marijuana advocates have narrowed in on 11 states where they believe that recreational marijuana can be legalized within the next year, including: California, Nevada, Minnesota, Maryland, Delaware, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maine.

While Virginia is not seen as a state that will likely legalize medical marijuana in the near future, advocates in the state haven’t stopped pushing for legalization.

The Virginia branch of the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that advocates for the legalization of marijuana, believes that Virginia could very soon legalize medicinal marijuana in the state, often citing a Quinnipiac poll from April 2015 which found that eighty-six percent of Virginia voters support legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes.

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