Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is heading into the third year of his term in office. And during his annual State of the Commonwealth speech on Wednesday, Gov. Northam called on lawmakers to decriminalize simple cannabis possession. While hesitant to embrace the more progressive marijuana policy reforms Democratic lawmakers in Virginia’s Assembly have proposed, like recreational legalization, Northam has remained committed to his campaign pledge to decriminalize marijuana and expunge possession convictions. Still, the governor’s remarks Wednesday mark the first time Northam has directly called on the General Assembly to pass a decriminalization measure.
Gov. Northam to Virginia Lawmakers: Decriminalize Possession Now
Despite recent and significant changes to its medical cannabis program, Virginia has struggled to make any progress reforming its strict, punitive laws against marijuana. In Virginia, simply possessing any amount of cannabis is a Class I misdemeanor carrying a maximum 30 day jail sentence.
Beyond that, any subsequent possession offense ratchets up the penalty to a year behind bars and a $2,500 fine. And that’s all for possession of less than half an ounce of cannabis. Anything above half an ounce counts as sale, manufacture or trafficking—a felony charge carrying a one to 10 year prison sentence.
With laws like that on the books, no wonder Virginia’s jails and prisons are overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders. And that was exactly Gov. Northam’s point when he called on Virginia lawmakers to decriminalize simple cannabis possession.
“We want to keep people safe,” Northam said in his Wednesday State of the Commonwealth speech before the General Assembly. “But we shouldn’t use valuable law enforcement time, or costly prison space, on laws that don’t enhance public safety.”
Virginia Governor Centers Cannabis in 2020 Push for Criminal Justice Reforms
In a separate policy address last week, Gov. Northam made cannabis policy a centerpiece of his 2020 criminal justice reform agenda. At the heart of that agenda are initiatives aimed at decriminalizing misdemeanor possession, expunging the criminal records of people with prior marijuana possession convictions and ending the policy of suspending driver’s licenses as a punishment for drug offenses or failure to pay fines and court fees.
Instead, Gov. Northam called for treating simple marijuana possession as a civil infraction with a $50 fine. The governor cited racial disparities in marijuana arrests and convictions as another significant reason for pursuing decriminalization and expungement. “We need to take an honest look at our criminal justice system to make sure we’re treating people fairly and using taxpayer dollars wisely,” Northam said.
Northam’s announcements, the first he has publicly made in front of the General Assembly, may signal a shift toward marijuana reform in the legislature. Indeed, Democrats now hold a majority in both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly, and lawmakers like Del. Steve Heretick (D-Hampton) have brought cannabis back into the conversation in a big way.
But the Democratic state government trifecta will still have to overcome staunch opposition from across the aisle. Virginia Republicans have so far managed to stymie any and all efforts to pass even minor decriminalization measures. 2020’s first legislative session, however, may be the moment Democrats are finally able to punch through.