RICHMOND — State Sen. Adam P. Ebbin wants Virginia to join more than a dozen states that have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The lawmaker is pushing a bill that would downgrade the offense from a criminal charge to a civil one with a fine of up to $100.
Under current Virginia law, a criminal arrest for having a small amount of marijuana could have serious consequences — from a six-month driver’s license suspension to having to check a box on job applications admitting to a criminal history, said Ebbin (D-Alexandria). There also is a wide racial disparity in how the law is enforced.
“We cannot continue to hide behind a fear of a plant in our criminal code,” he said at a news conference Thursday.
Yet Ebbin said he is realistic about how unlikely it is that his colleagues would support the bill in the Senate, where Republicans have a slim majority. And, he said, the issue has never been debated on the floor.
“What’s important is this has never been discussed in the Virginia Senate in a decriminalization way, and it needs to be,” he said.
In 2000, Del. Harvey B. Morgan proposed similar legislation that went nowhere. There is currently no companion bill in the House.
In November, D.C. voters overwhelmingly approved legalizing marijuana, but Congress blocked the effort as part of a deal to fund the federal government.
Ebbin’s bill would stop far short of outright legalization, but he said he has gotten pushback from law enforcement representatives, such as the Fraternal Order of Police.
Some argue that decriminalizing marijuana is a matter of fairness.
Frank Knaack, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said African Americans are 2.8 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia than whites are, even though the groups use marijuana at the same rate. And, a criminal conviction for marijuana can hurt a person’s ability to obtain public housing, child custody and federal loans.
Ed McCann, of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said that although Virginia arrests 20,000 people a year for having pot, it hasn’t discouraged widespread availability.
Ebbin’s bill would pertain only to adults.
“So, what is our message to kids?” McCann said. “It’s simple: Don’t use cannabis. It’s an adult activity — like alcohol, sex and lobbying.”
Also on Thursday, the Senate Education and Health Committee considered a bill that would legalize two oils that are extracts of marijuana to treat people with severe epilepsy. Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), who sponsored the bill, said the oils cannot get anyone “high” but can be more effective than conventional epilepsy drugs.
“It’s a huge relief for kids who right now are limited to FDA-approved drugs with really, really troubling side effects,” he said. “These are kids who suffer hundreds of seizures a day.”
The committee postponed action on the bill until next week. Marsden said he is still weighing whether to have the bill allow for state-based compounding pharmacies to create the oils. As written, the bill would legalize possession of the oils by patients suffering from debilitating epileptic seizures. State law already allows people with certain health problems to have some forms of medical marijuana, but that is limited to patients with cancer and glaucoma.