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Virginia Lawmakers Advance Bills on Marijuana, Justice, Environment

Senate Chamber
The chamber of the Virginia Senate during the 2020 legislative session. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Editor's note: This is a developing story

Democrats in Virginia’s General Assembly advanced proposals on everything from solitary confinement to legalizing marijuana as their session hit its effective half-way point.

Friday is the final day for Virginia’s House and Senate to pass legislation before the bills swap chambers. That left lawmakers scrambling to clear their dockets on high priority issues to make the deadline

Some of the highest-profile bills centered on criminal justice reforms.   

In the House, Democrats and a few Republicans voted for bills abolishing the death penalty and removing mandatory minimum sentences. Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle) was not among them.

“We believe that if you deal drugs to someone who's underage, we believe there is a minimum sentence,” Bell said.

Del. Mike Mullin (D-Newport News), a prosecutor who is also the bill’s sponsor, said drug dealing would remain illegal, with sentences at judge’s discretion. He argued it was clear mandatory minimum sentences and the War on Drugs had failed.

“We have criminalized mental health,” Mullin said. “We have criminalized addiction, and what we have ended up with is one of the largest incarceration rates in the world.”

The Senate approved a bill to expand Virginia’s Court of Appeals from 11 to 17 judges and another allowing for the expungement of criminal records. They also voted to limit the use of solitary confinement in state correctional facilities to up to 48 hours, and only to prevent "an imminent threat of physical harm to the prisoner or another person." 

Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) noted that current law allowed indefinite detention.

“There is empirical evidence that shows that after a certain number of days, there are very debilitating mental and physical effects on an individual,” Morrissey said.

Some of the most heated debate in the Senate centered on a bill to bar people who’ve assaulted a family or household member from possessing a firearm. Four Democrats joined Republicans to strike down the bill. 

Lawmakers advanced legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana use. Current proposals call for legalization to begin in July with retail sales beginning in 2024.

Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth) argued that cannabis is already widely sold in the commonwealth.

“Here is our opportunity to make it safer, to regulate it to get tax revenue from it to help our schools,” Scott said.

Some Republicans said legalizing cannabis could lead to a rise in impaired driving and lead to mental illness. The data on the latter point remains unclear -- a reason critics have cited for delaying rollout.

Bills that cleared one chamber now head to the other. Some priorities for progressives that cleared the House, including mandatory paid sick leave and utility regulation, face an uphill climb in the slower-moving and more business-friendly Senate. 

That chamber did pass legislation from Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) prohibiting racial discrimination in voting and election administration as well as legislation that includes domestic workers in various labor protection laws.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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