Virginia is poised to decriminalize, but not legalize, marijuana

Virginia seems poised to decriminalize marijuana.

The Democratic-controlled Virginia Senate approved a bill on Tuesday that would eliminate jail time for simple marijuana possession, leaving only a civil penalty with a fine in place for the first offense. On Monday, the Virginia House approved a largely similar bill to decriminalize cannabis.

The two legislative bodies will now have to reconcile the small differences between their bills in conference. Gov. Ralph Northam has vowed to sign a decriminalization bill into law, previously making the issue a priority for the year.

That’s different from marijuana legalization. Under decriminalization, penalties carrying jail or prison time are removed, but lower-level penalties, like a fine, remain in place and sales remain illegal. Under legalization, all penalties for marijuana possession are removed, and sales are typically allowed.

Some opponents of legalization favor decriminalization as a step toward peeling back America’s harsh drug and criminal justice policies. They see “tough on crime” policies as too punitive and costly, but they don’t want to resort to full legalization, which they fear would make pot too accessible in the US and allow big corporations to sell and market the drug irresponsibly.

The concern for legalization advocates is that decriminalization keeps the ban on selling marijuana, which means users wouldn’t have a legal source for the drug, and criminal organizations would therefore still have a source of revenue that they can use for violent operations around the world. The fines, while less punitive than arrests or prison time, can also cause problems, since they’re often applied in a racially disparate manner.

Some activists, including the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, oppose the decriminalization measure on similar grounds: They fear that the bill doesn’t do enough to dismantle the status quo of prohibition, preferring lawmakers legalize outright instead of taking smaller steps.

But state lawmakers and other activists argued that some progress is better than none. So after Democrats this year took control of Virginia’s legislature for the first time in decades, they moved to decriminalize.

Eleven states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana, although Vermont and DC don’t allow sales. Fifteen other states, not yet including Virginia, have decriminalized.

With decriminalization nearly done, activists in Virginia are likely to turn to legalization. But while legalization stands to spread around the country this year, so far no state in the South has fully legalized marijuana.

Supporters of legalization argue that it eliminates the harms of marijuana prohibition: the hundreds of thousands of arrests around the US, the racial disparities behind those arrests, and the billions of dollars that flow from the black market for illicit marijuana to drug cartels that then use the money for violent operations around the world. All of this, legalization advocates say, will outweigh any of the potential downsides — such as increased cannabis use — that might come with legalization.

Opponents, meanwhile, claim that legalization will enable a huge marijuana industry that will market the drug irresponsibly. They point to America’s experiences with the alcohol and tobacco industries in particular, which have built their financial empires in large part on some of the heaviest consumers of their products. This could result in far more people using pot, even if it leads to negative health consequences.

Sidestepping that debate, Virginia has decriminalized.

For more on marijuana decriminalization and legalization, read Vox’s explainer.

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