Legislative Roundup: Marijuana Measures Advance in Virginia and Kentucky, Stumble in New Mexico
Marijuana Decriminalization Approved in Virginia
Virginia is on the verge of eliminating the threat of jail time for possessing small amounts of cannabis.
The Virginia House of Delegates and the Senate approved separate bills this week that would decriminalize “simple marijuana possession.”
On Tuesday, the Senate voted 27-13 in favor of SB 2, which would significantly reduce the penalties for individuals carrying up to one ounce of marijuana. One day earlier, the House approved a similar decriminalization measure, HB 972, by a vote of 64-34.
Virginia House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, who introduced HB 972 in January, cheered its passage on Twitter Monday calling it “an important first step in combating the racial disparities in the Virginia criminal justice system.”
For his part, Senator Adam Ebbin, who introduced SB 2, said the bill’s passage was a “major step forward for criminal justice reform.”
“I look forward to working to pass it through the House and into law,” he tweeted.
Though similar, the two measures do have subtle differences. Under the House’s version of the bill, an individual would be fined $25 for possession of up to one-half ounce. Meanwhile, the Senate’s version imposes a $50 fine -- or five hours of community service -- for possession of up to one ounce.
Under current Virginia law, first time offenders can be fined up to $500 and face a maximum 30-day jail sentence for possessing one-half ounce of cannabis.
In a statement, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring praised the House and the Senate for passing the respective bills, but said lawmakers must continue to working toward full legalization.
“Passing decriminalization in both the House and the Senate is a really important first step in the right direction on Virginia’s journey towards legal and regulated adult use, but this cannot be the end,” he said. “For too long, Virginia’s approach to cannabis has needlessly saddled Virginians, especially African Americans and people of color, with criminal records but with these votes that is finally coming to an end.”
Governor Ralph Northam, who called for marijuana reform during his State of the State address earlier this year, is expected to sign a finalized version of the bill once differences between the House and Senate versions are reconciled. He will have until Midnight on April 6 to do so.
If approved, Virginia would become the 26th U.S. state to decriminalize mairjuana. Washington D.C. and dozens of individual localities also allow adults over the age of 21 to possess certain quantities of marijuana without facing harsh fines or jail time.
The Virginia Senate also recently passed a Joint Resolution to “study and make recommendations for how Virginia should legalize and regulate the growth, sale, and possession of marijuana and address the impacts of marijuana prohibition.”
Kentucky House Committee Advances Medical Marijuana Bill
Meanwhile, Kentucky’s House Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly approved a bill that would create a medical marijuana program and allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for patients with debilitating conditions.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 17-1 in favor of the bill, and Rep. Jason Nemes, who sponsored the measure, told the Herald-Leader that a full House passage is likely.
“It’s almost, pretty much over in the House of Representatives,” he told the outlet. “Now we’ve got to let our senators understand where you are and educate them on the bill.”
According to a recent Kentucky Health Issues Poll, 90% of Kentucky residents are in favor of legalizing medical marijuana.
In a statement, Marijuana Policy Project legislative analyst Matt Simon said “Kentuckians have been waiting far too long for safe, legal access to cannabis for medical use.”
“Patients and doctors in other states have learned through experience that cannabis is beneficial as an alternative to opioids and other prescription drugs,” he said. “Passing HB 136 is a moral imperative for Kentuckians who are suffering with debilitating medical conditions."
New Mexico Tables Legalization Bill
Elsewhere, a Senate Judiciary Committee in New Mexico shot down a bill that would have legalized recreational sales. Earlier this week, committee members voted 6-4 to table SB 115, the Cannabis Regulation Act, which would have created a regulated adult-use market in New Mexico.
New Mexico's legislative session ends on February 20, and the bill's chances of being reconsidered appear slim.
Nevertheless, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who called on lawmakers to legalize marijuana earlier this year, said "legalized recreational cannabis in New Mexico is inevitable" and vowed to make it a reality.
"The door remains open," she said via a statement after the measure failed to advance on Wednesday. "We will keep working to get it done. And ultimately we will deliver thousands of careers for New Mexicans in a new and clean and exciting industry, a key new component of a diversifying economy. We will deliver justice to the victims of an overzealous war on low-level drugs. We will protect our medical cannabis program and the New Mexico patients who rely on it for their medicine."
75% of New Mexico residents support the legalization of cannabis at the state level, according to the results of a state-funded poll released last year.
Currently, 33 states and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for medical use. Meanwhile, 11 states have approved recreational cannabis sales, while 26 states and Washington D.C. have decriminalized marijuana possession.