Proposal seeks to decriminalize marijuana possession in Virginia

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.

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