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Lawmaker introduces bill to make pot legal for personal use in Virginia

SoVaNow.com / January 13, 2021
Recent moves in Virginia to legalize marijuana may see pushback from farmers, even among those who grow hemp.

Jim Jennings, who serves as president of the Mecklenburg County Farm Bureau and represents ED-7 on the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors, told board members during their monthly meeting on Monday that he’s studied House Bill 1815 introduced by Del. Steve Heretick (D-Portsmouth), and believes it “does no good for anyone.” He did not elaborate on his claim.

The full board expressed no opinion on the bill.

The bill introduced by Heretick calls for the Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services to regulate marijuana cultivation, manufacturing and testing facilities as well as retail marijuana stores, and grants localities the authority to enact ordinances that set additional licensing requirements for marijuana establishments. HB 1815 also allows home cultivation of marijuana for personal use by persons 21 and older on land where they are live or have permission to grow the plant, so long as it is not visible from a public road and reasonable precautions are taken to prevent unauthorized access to the crop.

Every plant must have a tag attached that includes the grower’s name, driver’s license number or identification number, a notation that the marijuana plant is being grown for personal use, and if growing is done on land owned by someone other than the grower, the name of the landowner.

The bill imposes a tax on marijuana and marijuana products sold in retail establishments at a rate of 9.7 percent. Two-thirds of the tax revenues on marijuana sales would go to the general fund and the remaining one-third will be set aside for public education.

Finally, the bill establishes several new criminal penalties related to marijuana and modifies some existing criminal penalties.

Currently, distribution of one ounce or less of marijuana is a Class 1 misdemeanor. Distribution of more than one ounce up to five pounds of marijuana is a Class 5 felony, while distribution of more than five pounds and manufacture of marijuana are both felonies punishable by up to 30 years in prison. A third or subsequent conviction for distribution of marijuana is punishable by up to life in prison and requires a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence.

The current Code of Virginia includes additional felonies for transporting certain amounts of marijuana into the state, distributing marijuana to a minor, involving a minor in the distribution of marijuana, and distributing near schools or other specified properties.

If HB 1815 is enacted, there would be no penalties for possession of retail marijuana — that is, marijuana that is cultivated, manufactured, or sold by a licensed marijuana establishment — for persons who are 21 years of age or older. However, possession of non-retail marijuana would be subject to a civil penalty of no more than $25.

The proposal also decriminalizes retail marijuana possession for persons under 21 years of age and specifies a civil penalty of no more than $25.

While the law as proposed repeals provisions of the code section related to the manufacture and distribution of marijuana, it establishes a number of new misdemeanor and felony offenses for engaging in these activities without the required license, or otherwise engaging in prohibited practices related to the production, sale, and distribution of marijuana.

For example, distribution of more than five pounds of marijuana without a license would be a felony punishable by imprisonment of five to 30 years, while distribution of more than one ounce up to five pounds would be a Class 5 felony.

Cultivating or manufacturing marijuana in violation or the law would be a felony subject to five to 30 years in prison. Any person who knowingly makes a false statement to obtain a license to grow marijuana would be guilty of a Class 4 felony.

The bill’s introduction follows Governor Ralph Northam’s calls for legalization last month as he unveiled his budget. At the time Northam said, “We know that laws to ban marijuana historically were based in discrimination, and criminalization laws have disproportionately harmed minority communities. Virginia has studied the experience of other states — including taxation, banking, criminal justice, licensing, and regulation. Our path forward will lead with social equity, public health, and public safety. This session is the time to get this done.”

Virginia has been inching toward legalization of marijuana for the past two years. It began in 2019 when Attorney General Mark Herring pushed to decriminalize the drug. In May, Northam signed HB 972 which decriminalized simple possession of small amounts of marijuana and created a working group to study the impact of legalization.

Earlier in 2020, lawmakers killed bills that could have legalized marijuana, opting instead for decriminalization as a first step.

Northam released the report from his Marijuana Legalization Work Group on Nov. 30. Following its release, he announced he would support and advance marijuana legalization in the Commonwealth.

Another bill is in the works, according Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). Pedini said the legislation would contain provisions ensuring the safety of consumers who use marijuana, and would focus on equity and restoring justice for those impacted by Virginia’s decades-long criminalization of marijuana.

Virginia’s Criminal Sentencing Commission, in its impact statement prepared for the legislature, said it was unable to assess the impact of the law on criminal sentencing. “While the number of offenders convicted under marijuana provisions prior to July 1, 2020, can be identified, the number of individuals who may be convicted of the new misdemeanors and felonies defined in the proposal, and the sentences these individuals may receive, is not known,” the statement noted.

From July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020, courts in Virginia processed 4,226 marijuana-related cases. Of those, 662 offenders were sentenced to either jail or prison time of at least one month for their crime. Several of those convicted were sentenced to terms of ten years.

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