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Decriminalization Moves Forward In Virginia Legislature

Group of people standing in a room
Several groups lined up to speak against House Bill 972, which would reduce the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The ACLU of Virginia, RISE for Youth and others say the state should fully legalize the drug. (Photo by Whittney Evans/VPM)

Marijuana legalization in Virginia is officially off the table for the 2020 General Assembly session. But a form of decriminalization still moves forward.

The House Courts of Justice Committee rejected legislation Wednesday that would eliminate all criminal penalties for simple possession of marijuana, sending those bills out for further study by the state.

Lawmakers voted instead to pass a bill that would punish the possession of small amounts of marijuana with a fine of $25. Possession of more than half an ounce of marijuana would still be a felony.

The ACLU of Virginia opposed this legislation and called for a full repeal of marijuana prohibition. 

“No penalties, no unlawfulness,”  the ACLU of Virginia’s Executive Director Claire Gastañaga said. “And that’s where we wanted to end up and that’s what we’re going to continue to argue that we should go.”

Gastañaga said the bill could still lead to disproportionate enforcement among low income communities and communities of color.

“People think decriminalization means, ‘it’s okay for me to smoke marijuana and it’s not illegal anymore’. Well, it’s still illegal,” she said. “It’s just that the penalty is different and the consequences of the penalty are somewhat different.”

Del. Mike Mullin (D - Newport News) voted in favor of the bill, calling it an excellent first step in a long journey.

“We are making, I hope, enough of a stride in the right direction. And sometimes, I wish we could go farther,” he said. “I personally hope we can achieve in the next year, legalization here in this commonwealth.

A version of marijuana decriminalization has already advanced in the Senate. It comes with a fine of $50 for simple possession rather than $25.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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