Virginia lawmakers who made headlines this week after having come up with a new cannabis crime are now facing backlash from politicians, regulators and marijuana advocates. Last year, the state legalized small amounts of marijuana for people 21 and up in 2021.
The new proposition proposes that possession of more than 4 ounces of cannabis in public should be treated as a Class 3 misdemeanor, which carries a fine of $500 and burdens the arrestee with a criminal record.
Secondly, every other offense would be viewed as a Class 2 misdemeanor with punishment including up to a six-month jail term and a fine of up to $1,000.
This is the third time this year that the state’s legislative leaders have come up with new crimes for cannabis possession.
The budget compromise is supported by House Appropriations Chair Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach) and Senate Finance and Appropriations Chair Janet Howell (D-Fairfax). If Governor Glenn Youngkin signs the budget it will take effect July 1.
A number of lawmakers are criticizing the new budget specifically because of the marijuana possession crime it creates. They’re arguing that the process also lacked transparency and public input, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Fairfax Democratic Sens. Howell and George Barker, the chair and vice-chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, privately discussed the state’s new budget with House Appropriations Chair Knight.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) called it strange for the legislature to establish a new crime in the budget and said she hopes this won’t happen again. She added that previous legislative proposals on cannabis enabled public input from those who have “had been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs,” while the current process did not.
“A handful of people that didn’t include a single member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus deciding new criminal penalties … with no real opportunity for public input is concerning,” McClellan said.
Addressing those concerns, Howell said, “It’s so convoluted, but I would refer people back to the JLARC study that recommended that.” She was referring to a 2021 study done by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which recommended Virginia lawmakers establish a misdemeanor charge for adults caught in possession of what the state considers too much cannabis.
Del. Mike Mullin (D-Newport News) also condemned the decision. “Re-criminalization is sending us in the wrong direction,” he said.
There’s also Del. Marcus Simon, (D-Fairfax) who said that the budget leaders placed bad cannabis policy in the state spending plan.
What’s more, Sen. Louise Lucas, (D-Portsmouth), and Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), Senate conferees who signed the budget, added their opposition to the marijuana proposition.
Virginia CannaJustice Coalition issued a statement harshly criticizing the proposition, arguing that Virginia “voted to walk back progress on decriminalization.”
“Research and data have already outlined the historic disparate enforcement of these laws against Black Virginians,” the Coalition stated.