Starting July 1, adults 21 and older in Virginia can legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana.
Ahead of that date, local police departments say they are preparing their officers, while advocates say the bill needs serious retooling to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system and help reverse the harm done to Black and brown communities after decades of unequal enforcement.
“We still have time to fix many of these things,” Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of the racial justice and cannabis advocacy group Marijuana Justice, said. “Between now and then, we have elections. We have to talk to people about how they’re going to take this legalization forward while centering equity. This is not over.”
The Virginia General Assembly passed a law earlier this month accelerating the legalization of weed from July 2024 to this coming summer. The law will be reenacted in 2024, when recreational, commercial sales are legalized.
Through June 30, the possession of less than one ounce of cannabis will remain “decriminalized” — that is, it is penalized with a fine, but the incident does not show up on a person’s criminal record.
The new law legalizing cannibis essentially permits those 21 and older to use marijuana inside their homes, and possibly in their backyards; grow up to four plants; and possess up to one ounce of cannabis. The plant must be in a manufacturer’s container for someone to drive with it in the car legally.
Giving cannabis to someone underage is considered a felony, while students younger than 21 who are found in possession of the plant on school grounds would be charged with a misdemeanor. A clause requires court-ordered drug treatment services for individuals 20 and under found with the plant.
People in jail for marijuana-related crimes will remain there, Virginia Mercury reports.
Here are the top areas of interest and concern for police officers, people in the criminal justice system and advocates.
Although marijuana-related arrests have been trending down recently, Falls Church City Police Chief Mary Gavin says that one potential consequence of marijuana legalization is more people driving while stoned.
“There are going to be obviously growing pains,” Gavin said. “My biggest concern, in terms of public safety, is the possible increase of driving under the influence.”
According to data provided to Tysons Reporter by the police departments, cannabis arrests appear to be trending down slightly in both Fairfax County and Falls Church City. A chart supplied by Fairfax County Police Department shows arrest rates peaking in 2018 before dropping off dramatically in 2020.
The Falls Church City Police Department reported a similar pattern. It made 61 and 63 arrests in 2018 and 2019, respectively, followed by 17 arrests in 2020 and none so far this year.
Herndon Police Department spokesperson Lisa Herndon said the town had about 125 marijuana-related arrests from Jan. 1, 2018 to Dec. 13, 2020.
Gavin attributed the recent drop-off in arrests to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and a policy change introduced by Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano, who ceased prosecuting simple marijuana possession cases against adults when he took office on Jan. 2, 2020.
Descano told Tysons Reporter that he stopped prosecuting marijuana cases because it would be the right approach for community safety and racial equity. His office estimates that more than 1,000 cases have since been dismissed.
“While the opposition to this decision was intense at the time — so much so that we planned to create a bail fund in case our attorneys were held in contempt of court and jailed — I am pleased that other jurisdictions followed suit and marijuana has now been legalized across the Commonwealth,” Descano said. Read More