On Wednesday, Virginia lawmakers kicked off their first legislative session of 2019. And cannabis legalization is a top agenda item, thanks to Democrat delegate Steve Heretick and Sen. Adam Ebbin. Both legislators have introduced bills to decriminalize and legalize marijuana in Virginia. Currently, Virginia prohibits cannabis in all forms and for any use. But the state does have a legal loophole that gives some protection to medical cannabis patients with certain conditions.
Legalization and Decrim Bills Look to End Age of Prohibition in Virginia
Democrats in Virginia want to bring the state into the modern era of cannabis, and they’re wasting no time in 2019 working to get there. Virginia’s first legislative session runs through February 23, and by that date, lawmakers will have considered two bills to decriminalize and legalize marijuana for adult use. In the House of Delegates, Steve Heretick has introduced HB 2371, which would legalize cannabis for any use for anyone 21 and older. Heretick’s bill would also set up a taxed and regulated cultivation, distribution and retail industry in Virginia.
And in case Virginia doesn’t go from zero to 60, from prohibition to full legalization, this session, state senator Adam Ebbin has introduced a bill to decriminalize possession up to half an ounce. Virginia currently penalizes simple marijuana possession with a maximum penalty of $500 and 30 days in jail for first-time offenders. Sen. Ebbin’s bill would make simple possession a civil infraction, rather than a criminal misdemeanor. First-time violations would receive a $50 fine—the “weed ticket” approach.
Virginia’s “Affirmative Defense” Medical Cannabis Policy Isn’t Good Enough
Virginia doesn’t have a legal framework for medical cannabis. Instead, it provides patients with an “affirmative defense” should they ever face prosecution for possessing cannabis. An affirmative defense allows a defendant to provide credible evidence that negates their criminal liability for possession. In other words, if a Virginia resident can prove that they use medical cannabis under recommendation from their doctor for an approved condition, a judge can’t convict them for possession or use. But patients can still face arrest, charges and a trial if law enforcement doesn’t accept their affirmative defense certificate.
Furthermore, Virginia’s affirmative defense only protects the possession and use of certain cannabis oils. That means no flower and no concentrates. Additionally, oils must contain at least 15 percent CBD or THC-A, both non-psychoactive cannabinoids. They must also have no more than 5 percent THC. Under this framework, Virginia has approved 5 medical cannabis dispensaries licensed to sell non-psychoactive oils. Those companies will also be able to start cultivating cannabis later this year. Virginia selected the five dispensary operators out of a pool of more than 50 applicants.
Because affirmative defense still poses risks to medical cannabis patients, it’s not a viable long-term solution for a state that’s making investments in the medical cannabis industry. As a champion of legalization since his election in 2016, Delegate Heretick knows the time has come for a major policy change in Virginia.
In a brief video posted to YouTube, Heretick calls upon the Commonwealth to legalize the manufacture, possession and personal use of marijuana. He calls prohibition a “failed experiment” that criminalized the lawful conduct of millions of Americans every day. Ultimately, Heretick says, adults should have the freedom to choose for themselves whether to consume cannabis privately. And the introduction of HB 2371 is one step toward getting there.