RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Lawmakers in the Virginia House and Senate have backed legislation that would decriminalize simple possession of marijuana, a legislative priority pushed by Democrats and backed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ahead of the General Assembly session.
Less than a week before this year’s session convened, Northam announced his support for criminal justice reform measures, including marijuana decriminalization, that would help Virginia take “a bold step.”
The House passed a bill introduced by Virginia House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), with bipartisan support on Monday that would do away with criminal charges for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Those caught with the drug would instead receive a fine of no more than $25.
A measure from Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of the drug and make the penalty no more than $50. On Tuesday, the Senate voted 27-13 to pass Ebbin’s bill.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who in the past said he supports marijuana legalization, released a statement following the Senate’s vote.
“Passing decriminalization in both the House and the Senate is a really important first step in the right direction on Virginia’s journey towards legal and regulated adult use, but this cannot be the end. We must keep going because the work is not done,” Herring said. “For too long, Virginia’s approach to cannabis has needlessly saddled Virginians, especially African Americans and people of color, with criminal records but with these votes that is finally coming to an end. I want to thank my colleagues in both the House and the Senate for joining me in making this issue a priority and I look forward to seeing the progress we can make in the coming years.”
Critics of Virginia’s decriminalization effort have complained that the bills from the House and Senate don’t go far enough. Herring said her bill “is an important first step in combating the racial disparities in the Virginia criminal system.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has raised concerns over Herring’s bill, arguing it would fail to take away “a racist policing tool,” that input from impacted communities was not taken into consideration and punishes “youth more harshly than adults.” A 2013 report from the ACLU states that the use of marijuana is roughly equal among black people and white people, however black Americans are more than three times as likely to be arrested for possession of the drug.
Ebbin told 8News in November that he was “very optimistic” that his legislation would make it to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk. Each chamber’s bill would still need to be passed by the other chamber before making it to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.