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Va. budget leaders include new marijuana crime in spending plan

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Marijuana plants1

Marijuana plants growing in a Virginia home.

Virginia legislative leaders on Sunday evening revealed budget language that would create a new criminal misdemeanor in state law for possession of more than 4 ounces of marijuana in public.

Marijuana reform groups immediately called for lawmakers to stand down and stop finding new ways to criminalize Virginians who use marijuana.

The provision will be the third time this year that state lawmakers have considered creating new crimes for marijuana possession.

The proposition comes within the proposal for a new two-year state budget — which became publicly available online Sunday evening.

The General Assembly will convene Wednesday in special session to consider the budget. The language on marijuana — like much of the budget agreement on the table — followed discussions that were not held in public.

The budget compromise backed by House Appropriations Chair Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, and Senate Finance and Appropriations Chair Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, would write into law that anyone caught in public with more than 4 ounces of marijuana would be guilty of a Class 3 criminal misdemeanor. That means a fine of up to $500 plus a criminal record.

A second or subsequent offense would be a Class 2 misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

Virginia lawmakers in 2021, when Democrats controlled both chambers of the legislature, legalized adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use; adults can now grow up to four plants in their homes. Possession of anything above an ounce and up to a pound is punishable only by a $25 civil infraction, while possession of more than a pound is a felony.

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But the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission recommended a year ago that Virginia follow the lead of other states and create a criminal misdemeanor for people in possession of what the state government deems to be too much marijuana.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of the group Marijuana Justice Virginia, along with heads of other organizations, sent Howell an email on Sunday evening.

“Please stop finding more ways to criminalize Virginians,” she wrote, adding, “let’s work on righting the wrongs from the failed and destructive prohibition.”

Higgs Wise added: “Virginia officials must not allow the budget document to become a legislative workaround to enforce the will of the administration at the exclusion of the voice and will of the people.”

Efforts to add new criminal penalties for marijuana to state law already failed twice this year.

During the regular session of the General Assembly, a bill from Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, broadly would have governed new retail sales of marijuana in Virginia and also would have created a new criminal misdemeanor. The bill failed in the GOP-controlled House.

And then in April, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin proposed amendments to a hemp industry bill that would have established new criminal misdemeanor penalties for people in possession of more than 2 ounces of marijuana. Opponents said the proposal moved the state backward toward racially biased policing. The General Assembly did not adopt the governor’s proposal.

Because the assembly failed to complete work on a new budget and on certain bills during this year’s regular session, the assembly remains in a special session.

While the budget generally lays out state spending, the legislature has the power to propose policy in the budget, and that’s what Knight and Howell are proposing with the marijuana penalty. Asked about the rumored plan during a Thursday interview, both of them declined to discuss marijuana.

pwilson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @patrickmwilson

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pwilson@timesdispatch.com; (804) 649-6061; Twitter: @patrickmwilson

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