by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director February 6, 2020

Lawmakers are advancing legislative efforts to end criminal penalties for low-level marijuana possession offenses.

On Wednesday, members of the House Courts of Justice Committee amended and approved legislation, HB 972, reducing penalties for offenses involving the possession of up to a half ounce of marijuana to a civil violation — punishable by a maximum $25 fine, no arrest, and no criminal record. Under current law, minor marijuana possession offenses are classified as criminal misdemeanors, punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a criminal record, and the possible loss of driving privileges.

According to data from the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, more than 15,000 people were convicted for a first or second marijuana possession offense from July 2018 to June 2019.

NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini, who also serves as the Executive Director of Virginia NORML, praised the progress. “[This vote] marks the first time the House Courts of Justice Committee has approved a decriminalization bill,” she said in a statement to Marijuana Moment. “We’re especially grateful to Delegate Herring for her thoughtful amendments and look forward to continuing our work with the legislature to reduce the cruel and disparate impact of marijuana laws in the Commonwealth.”

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee had previously approved a separate decriminalization measure last week. If both competing measures are ultimately approved on the floors of the House and Senate, lawmakers will convene a committee to reconcile the two bills.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has spoken in favor of decriminalizing marijuana violations and expunging past convictions as has Attorney General Mark Herring. Last year, Herring said: “Criminalization of marijuana possession is not working for Virginia. We are needlessly creating criminals and getting a lot of convictions. And this whole system — the weight of it — falls disproportionately on African Americans and people of color. There is a better, smarter way to approach cannabis, and it starts with decriminalizing simple possession of small amounts, addressing past convictions and moving thoughtfully toward legal and regulated adult use.”

According to state crime data, nearly 29,000 arrests were made in Virginia in 2018 for marijuana-related activities — an increase of 25 percent since 2016.