Vox reports that Virginia has decriminalized simple possession of marijuana.
The commonwealth joins fifteen other states in decriminalizing cannabis possession. However, lawmakers opted against fully legalizing the drug.
Decriminalization falls short of legalization
With decriminalization, people charged with possession of marijuana may pay a civil penalty in the form of a fine but not face criminal consequences like prison or jail time. However, the sale of marijuana remains illegal. Decriminalization leads to an inconsistent result that allows people to use marijuana but not purchase the drug legally.
Legalization proponents continue to push for reform
Legalization would permit cannabis sales and eliminate fines and all other penalties for possession. Decriminalization offers a middle ground for lawmakers and community members who worry that legalization would make cannabis too accessible and allow large companies to profit from selling and marketing the drug at the expense of public health.
Advocates for legalization highlight the prohibition on sales as a key flaw with the legislation. They argue that the risks of outlawing marijuana sales outweigh any risk arising from broader marijuana use in the community. For example, if sales remain illegal, a robust black market may funnel billions of dollars to drug cartels and their criminal activities. In addition, activists argue that failure to legalize the drug reinforces prejudicial practices that may unfairly penalize members of minority communities. The Virginia legislature has commissioned a study to investigate legalization further.
NORML explains that the new law allows marijuana offenders convicted under prior law to have their criminal records sealed from certain public records requests. Decriminalization will be effective July 1, 2020.