In the South? This is historic. And no, it is not a drill.

This article has been updated on April 16 to reflect the change in fine for marijuana possession from $50, to $25.

On Monday, April 13, 2020, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced the signing of a bill decriminalizing marijuana in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia now joins 27 states that have taken such action (with 11 states plus D.C. legalizing cannabis, and 16, including Virginia, now decriminalizing).

While the bill (HB 972) to decriminalize marijuana (in conjunction with two similar bills reconfiguring legal definitions of marijuana and restrictions on time served) passed the Virginia House and Senate with bipartisan support in March 2020, Northam faced a deadline last weekend to sign them into law. On Saturday, April 11, Northam signed the bill, and on Sunday, April 12, he made the announcement to the state that beginning July 1, marijuana possession will no longer be a criminal offense.

The decriminalization bill enacted into law incorporates earlier bills proposed by the legislature (HB 265, HB 301, and HB 481 ) and is identical to the decriminalization bill SB 2 (if you're into the semantics of the legal stuff).

The Basics

  • The law takes effect on July 1, 2020.
  • Fines for possession up to one ounce may not exceed $25. Possession under this amount will now be treated as a civil, not a criminal penalty (For example, legally in a justice procedure similar to a bad traffic ticket)—and jail time may not be incurred under this new law.
  • It is not legal to possess marijuana, but it is now a civil offense—not a criminal one (A speeding violation is a civil offense; assault is a criminal offense).
  • This law applies to possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.
  • It doesn't apply to possession over one ounce (This is interpreted as "intent to distribute" and the new civil law stipulations do not apply).
  • Selling marijuana is neither legal nor decriminalized (possession of over one ounce).

But simply having under one ounce of marijuana on your person? You can't go to jail for just that. You won't be charged with a criminal offense. And hopefully (theoretically) as lawmakers aim, it's no longer going to ruin your life.

Marijuana decriminalized in Virginia illustration
Courtesy of Medium/Guru Fallon

While current law imposes a maximum $500 fine, maximum 30-day jail sentence, and permits the offense to appear on your permanent criminal record, under the new decriminalization law, simple possession incurs "a penalty of no more than $25."

You can read the full text of the bill here.

When does the law go into effect?

July 1, 2020. However, Northam proposed a few technical amendments (mostly tightening technicalities of allowances proposed in the original bill) that still need to be approved by the General Assembly before the law can be implemented. (In Virginia, a bill becomes a law after passing the Virginia House of Delegates, passing the Virginia Senate, and then being signed by the governor. For this reason, any slight alterations to a bill need to be approved.)

Is it legal to possess marijuana?

No. It is just now a civil, not a criminal offense (subject to fines of up to $25, that hopefully won't ruin your life).

Is it a crime to possess marijuana?

No. It's a civil offense. A lot like a speeding violation—it's not legal, but it's not a criminal offense. Our great gorgeous state of democracy is admittedly super-complicated in both the architecture of its prohibition and its protections.

Okay. Will cops actually weigh my weed on-site to determine my penalty if I'm subject to higher charges?

I have literally no idea. What do you think? Police in decriminalized states are faced with the complexities of enforcing these laws (since sometimes they're a little contradictory with federal law and how to police them is not as set in stone). The safe answer? Follow your gut and play it safe.

Is it legal to sell marijuana?

No. It is neither decriminalized nor legalized to sell marijuana. If you are caught in possession of over one ounce of marijuana, this is legally interpreted as intent to distribute, and this "decriminalization" does not apply to sellers.

Is it a crime to sell marijuana?

Yes. This law still applies, and possession of over one ounce equates to intent to sell or distribute.

How much is an ounce of marijuana?

Well, bro, it's a measurement.

  • An eighth is about 3.5 grams
  • A quarter is about 7 grams
  • A half is about 14 grams
  • An ounce is about 28 grams [This is #Crime]

Here is this entirely unscientific visualization, although you need to be careful either way.

Marijuana Legalized in Virginia Ounce Grams Weight Conversons Infographic
Courtesy of BRRC Images

So they're not going to legalize it, then?

We don't know. Virginia-based corporate giant Altria (parent company of Philip Morris, weighty political lobbying player, and namesake of Richmond's Tobacco Row) are signaling strides into the cannabis market, and just last February the Virginia legislature approved a state-funded study to investigate how full cannabis legalization might impact the state. However, no legalization bills have yet been proposed.

Is this even a big deal?

Yes. While many states have legalized or decriminalized marijuana so far in recent years, no Southern state has legalized marijuana—and decriminalization still puts Virginia among a minority of states making this move.

Cannabis laws state-by-state. (Infographic Courtesy of Marijuana Policy Project/German Lopez/Vox)

How does this impact the jail sentences of those currently incarcerated for possession of under one ounce of marijuana?

We don't know yet. No legislation has yet been signed by the governor altering current sentences served by drug offenders, although you can follow several bills currently moving through the Virginia House of Delegates, the Virginia Senate, and the governor's desk here.

What if I strongly disagree with this new law?

Write the governor or your district representative.

What if I am super-stoked on this new law?

Write the governor or your district representative.

The original bill (proposed by the Virginia House of Delegates) aimed for such convictions to no longer appear in a "criminal record report" submitted to the Central Criminal Records Exchange, and proposed to prohibit "agencies, officials, and employees of the state and local governments from requiring an applicant for a license, permit, registration or governmental service to disclose information concerning such arrest, criminal charge, or conviction." The legislation that was originally proposed back in January and passed by the Virginia House and Senate in March will, Northam argued in an April 12 statement, move the Commonwealth towards "a fair and equitable criminal justice system."

"These bills combat mass incarceration, increase support for returning citizens, and ensure that those who have paid their debt to society have a meaningful second chance," Northam continued.

Additionally, after this bill takes effect, if you are faced with civil charges for this (now civil, but no longer criminal offense) and are acquitted, have the charges dismissed, or receive a nolle prosequi verdict(a "nolle prosequi" is legalese for the verdict "nevermind"), you may then file an application to have this expunged from your record.

Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), a sponsor of the original bill, says it's “a major step forward for criminal justice reform in Virginia.”

“The prohibition on marijuana has clearly failed, and impacts nearly 30,000 Virginians per year,” Ebbin says. “It’s well past time that we stop doing damage to people’s employment prospects, educational opportunities, and parental rights.”

Do you have any questions about this new law? Reach out to OCN with your thoughts, concerns, or reactions, and we'll do our best to research how this impacts you and your state.