Governor Ralph Northam convened a special session of the Virginia General Assembly on August 18, 2020 to address a number of social and criminal justice priorities and resolve budget issues. Included in legislation being considered this session are a number marijuana-related objectives which have advanced in both the Senate and House of Delegates thus far.

Building off of the decriminalization measure that took effect on July 1, Senate Bill 5013, which would give those that receive a summons for the violation of simple possession the option to pre-pay the ticket instead of going to court, was approved by the Senate in August on a 29-7 vote. The bill must now be approved by the House of Delegates.

Senate Bill 5029 would prohibit law enforcement from searching an individual or vehicle solely based on the odor of marijuana. A companion measure is also pending, House Bill 5058, which includes provisions to amend the law so that an individual cannot receive a summons for a possession violation unless they are also being charged with an additional violation.

Each bill has been approved by its chamber of origin. The bills will now cross over to the opposite chambers, where House and Senate lawmakers will work to reconcile the differences between the two versions.

Marijuana Decriminalization

“While there is much more work to be done surrounding criminal justice and cannabis policy, these bills are important steps the Commonwealth can and should immediately take,” NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini said. Pedini also serves as Virginia NORML Executive Director, and works closely with the state legislature to advance evidence-based cannabis policy. “Prohibiting law enforcement searches based solely on the odor of marijuana will greatly reduce non-essential interactions between police and otherwise law-abiding members of the public.”

“Earlier this year, Maryland’s highest court unanimously decided that law enforcement may not rely on the odor of marijuana as justification to perform a warrantless search of a person or to make an arrest,” Pedini said. “It’s time that Virginia does the same.”

The Senate and House have also each advanced expungement bills through multiple committees. Senate Bill 5043 would allow a person to petition for the expungement of the police and court records relating to such person’s conviction for misdemeanor marijuana possession after 5 years, whereas House Bill 5146 would automatically expunge records relating to marijuana possession after 8 years. The bills are awaiting floor votes in their respective chambers.

“Virginians deserve the opportunity to clear their records of marijuana-related offenses, most of which no longer carry a criminal penalty in the Commonwealth,” remarked Pedini.

Do you live in Virginia? If so, take a minute to send a message to your lawmakers in support of these important reform efforts!

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