New marijuana crime included in Virginia budget proposal

Posted at 10:11 PM, May 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-30 22:11:37-04

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia legislative leaders are proposing a new criminal misdemeanor in state law for possession of more than four ounces of marijuana in public.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that the proposal is included in a new two-year state budget plan, which became publicly available online Sunday evening. The General Assembly will meet Wednesday in special session to consider the budget. The language on marijuana - like much of the budget agreement - followed discussions that were not held in public.

The budget compromise backed by House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, a Republican, and Senate Finance and Appropriations Chair Janet Howell, a Democrat, would write into law that anyone caught in public with more than four ounces of marijuana would be guilty of a Class 3 criminal misdemeanor that carries 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.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of the group Marijuana Justice Virginia, along with heads of other organizations, blasted the proposal in an email sent to Howell 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.”

“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," Higgs Wise wrote.

In 2021, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly legalized adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. 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.

But the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission recommended 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.

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 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.

In April, GOP 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 two 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.

While the budget generally lays out state spending, the legislature has the power to propose policy in the budget, as Knight and Howell are doing with the marijuana penalty. When asked about the rumored plan during a Thursday interview, both declined to discuss marijuana.

The proposed budget deal General Assembly negotiators reached last week would cut taxes by $4 billion over three years and increase state employee and teacher pay by 10% over two years.

The proposed tax cuts include one-time rebates of $250 for individual taxpayers and $500 for families this year, a 78% increase in the standard deduction on state income taxes and a refundable tax credit for low-income working families, the Times-Dispatch reported.

But it does not include some of the tax cuts proposed by Youngkin, including a three-month suspension of the state tax on gasoline. It does include the repeal of the 1.5% state portion of the grocery tax, but not the 1% local option sales tax on groceries.

Related: Virginia Beach Police educating community on current marijuana law after complaints about cannabis pop-up shops