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Legalized? Not quite, under new Virginia law decriminalizing marijuana

Mike Still • Jun 29, 2020 at 2:30 PM

WISE — In 1975, reggae singer Peter Tosh recorded “Legalize It” as a call to make marijuana use legal. On Wednesday, Virginia will decriminalize it under certain limits.

Wise County and Norton Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp III says decriminalization under General Assembly legislation set to become law on July 1 will drop some criminal penalties for marijuana possession. Some aspects of marijuana possession still will remain criminal offenses, and possession still remains a federal crime.

“To be clear, marijuana is not legalized,” Slemp said. “Instead, the punishment for simple possession of marijuana under state law is limited to a fine.”

Simple possession under the new law is having one ounce or less of marijuana or hashish oil for personal use, Slemp said. Having cannabidiol oil or THC-A oil under a valid prescription is not considered possession and will not be prosecuted, he added.

Slemp said he has already gotten questions from court and probation personnel about probationers who may test positive for marijuana use and claim it is legal under the new law.

“It isn’t,” Slemp said, adding that it becomes a probation violation at that point.

Getting charged for simple possession starting Wednesday comes with basically the same penalty as a traffic violation: a summons and, if found guilty, a $25 fine. Until Wednesday, though, an arrest for simple possession can get a violator up to 30 days in jail and up to $500 in fines if convicted.

Possession citations under the new law can still be contested by trial in general district court, and convictions do not go on a person’s criminal record. If acquitted of a simple possession charge, the person can also file to have the arrest and court record expunged.

Simple possession while operating a commercial motor vehicle will be reported to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, Slemp said, and that does go on one’s driving record.

When it comes to a marijuana possession citation’s effect on a person’s employment, education or obtaining government services, it has no official effect. Employers and educational institutions cannot require disclosure of arrests, charges or convictions on simple possession. Records of those arrests, charges or convictions are not open to the public in most cases. Local and state government agencies cannot require disclosure of them as a condition for any license, permit, registration or government service.

Possession or more than an ounce, however, is still subject to criminal charges and jail or prison time as before, putting that person at risk of a charge of possession with intent to distribute, Slemp noted. Illegal marijuana growing operations are still illegal.

Marijuana and hemp products also fall under similar restrictions to tobacco Wednesday, when persons under age 21 cannot buy hemp products intended for smoking.

“It is the General Assembly’s place to make laws and my duty to enforce them,” Slemp said.

Other drug-related law changes starting Wednesday include:

— Anyone seeking emergency medical attention for themselves or another person for an overdose will not be subject to arrest or prosecution for drug- or alcohol-related offenses

— Persons not authorized to administer naloxone or similar anti-opioid overdose medication can administer it in an actual or possible overdose situation absent gross negligence or willful and wanton misconduct.

— Removing provisions for license suspension for persons convicted or on deferred disposition of drug charges, unpaid fees owed to local correctional facilities or regional jails or for shoplifting motor fuel.

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