The governor of the U.S. state of Virginia has approved a law that removes all criminal penalties for simple cannabis possession.
Cannabis Decriminalisation in Virginia
This is not legalisation, but decriminalisation. The new law (HB972), which will take effect from July 1, means that possession of up to one ounce of cannabis will no longer be a criminal offence and can only be met with a civil penalty – a fine of up to $25 (£20). Until now, a first-time cannabis possession offence could be punished by up to 30 days’ imprisonment and a $500 (£400) fine. Possession of more than an ounce, or the sale of any amount, remain criminal offences that can garner several years imprisonment.
The criminalization of cannabis has had a significant impact on the population of Virginia, particularly in recent years. According to the Virginia State Police, there were almost 29,000 arrests relating to cannabis in 2019 – of which more than 50 per cent involved people under the age of 24.
Racial Disparity and the US Drug War
Perhaps the most disproportionate impact of criminalization has been that imposed upon Virginia’s Black communities. Despite making up less than 20 per cent of the state population, Black people make up 45 per cent of first-offence cannabis possession arrests in Virginia between 2007 and 2016. For subsequent cannabis possession offences, that proportion rises to a staggering 53 per cent.
It’s a similar story to the manifestation of the drug war across the U.S. As the Drug Policy Alliance has found, Black people and other people of colour use and sell drugs at similar rates to white people, yet “they are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted and harshly sentenced, [and] they suffer most from the repercussions of a lifelong criminal record”.
Indeed, the impact of a drug conviction, however minor, can be wide-reaching in its harms beyond incarceration, creating barriers to education, housing, and employment. This can lead to a cycle of poverty, impacting people’s children and families, spurring ripple effects that harm entire communities.
The Fight For Justice Goes On
Virginia’s new law may provide a welcome reprieve for some of the people burdened by a conviction for cannabis possession. The legislation states that a criminal record may no longer include reference to “any charges or judgments for such violations and records of such charges or judgements shall not be reported to the Central Criminal Records Exchange”.
The decriminalization of cannabis is a significant step forward for Virginia, moving away from a punitive approach that traps people in poverty. However, for many advocates of drug policy reform, it is insufficient.
Following the decriminalization of cannabis in New York last year, the Drug Policy Alliance noted that "decriminalization alone is not enough to deal with the full impact of marijuana prohibition and just gives law enforcement discretion. Actually addressing the legacy of harm from prohibition and targeted enforcement by comprehensively legalizing and reinvesting in communities is what policymakers need to deliver on".
For many supporters of cannabis reform in Virginia, the first battle may be won, but the fight for justice goes on.
* Avinash Tharoor is Foundation Giving Coordinator at the Drug Alliance and the former editor of TalkingDrugs.