Virginia moves toward marijuana decriminalization

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP/WWBT) — UPDATE (Feb. 10):

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Virginia is moving toward decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana.

The state House on Monday passed HB 972, a decriminalization bill, with bipartisan support. Delegates voted 64-34 for the measure, with a number of Republicans joining Democrats in favor.

The state Senate is expected to pass its own version shortly.

Gov. Ralph Northam has signaled his support for the measure.

If passed, the legislation would scrap criminal charges for possessing marijuana and replace them with small fines. Supporters have argued the measure is needed in part because African Americans are disproportionately charged with drug crimes.

A measure to legalize marijuana failed earlier this year.

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This year, Virginia will not join the list of states that have legalized marijuana, but the idea of decriminalizing possession is gaining momentum. This week, a committee voted to send the proposal to the House of Delegates. Lawmakers began debating it on Friday.

It’s become the topic of conversation in the Commonwealth. Will the General Assembly, made up of a majority of Democrats, reform Virginia’s marijuana laws? Right now, a person who is found with half an ounce of the drug can be jailed for up to 30 days and/or be fined $500. The second time it happens, jail time is increased up to a year and the fine increases up to $2,500.

"The amount of arrests and prosecutions of African-Americans with simple marijuana possession is three times that of their white counterparts,” said Delegate Charniele Herring.

Herring believes the penalty of the misdemeanor offense is having a negative impact on far too many.

"It ends up on your criminal record. It can affect employment, as well as getting housing,” she added.

It’s why the majority leader proposed House Bill 972. That would strike any jail time for having half an ounce of marijuana. Offenders would only have to pay a $25 penalty. Those who want marijuana legalized have issues with that proposal.

The ACLU says it’s “not enough”. The group believes it contributes to over-incarceration if an offender can’t pay the $25 penalty. Right now, Virginia lawmakers sent the idea of legalization to a non-partisan committee to study, and Herring says that the study could take a year. The results may give lawmakers guidance on whether they want to re-visit legalization in 2021.

"If we could have a good regulatory environment for it and make sure that we are protecting the public safety, I have no opposition to legalization, but that’s why we sent it to a study to make sure we have the proper construct,” Herring added.

Here are the numbers for marijuana arrests in Richmond, Virginia's capital, over the past six months from the Richmond Police Department:

Jan. 2020 - 67
Dec. 2019 - 82
Nov. 2019 - 73
Oct. 2019 - 58
Sept. 2019 - 72
Aug. 2019 - 91