State Senator pushes for marijuana decriminalization


By Alexander Shedd, News Assistant Editor

A state senator has introduced a new bill to the state legislature that would relax certain parts of the laws for marijuana-related offenses.

Senator Tommy Norment (R-James City) presented a bill to the State Senate on Jan. 19, which would reduce the penalty for possession of marijuana to a fine of no more than $500 and would allow for the possibility of forgiveness for first-time offenders.

Senate bill 954, if passed, would take effect on New Year’s Day, 2019. It has gained significant traction in the senate so far. The bill passed through the courts of justice committee from its date of introduction through Jan. 29. It has now been sent to the senate finance committee for consideration.

According to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article published on Jan. 29, some voices on the left are skeptical of Norment’s bill.

“It’s the illusion of progress,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the Virginia ACLU. She adds that people may be unable to afford the proposed $500 expungement fee.

Gastañaga supported another bill, introduced by Senator Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), which died in committee on Monday. Ebbin’s bill proposed changing the levels of severity for possession of small amounts of marijuana from a criminal misdemeanor to a civil penalty. The fine for the civil penalty would have been $50 for first-time offenders and could go up to $250 for third and subsequent offenses. 

The Times-Dispatch also asserted that Norment’s stance on the issue of decriminalization has reversed, and that “he changed his mind because a decriminalization bill would not survive House committee.” Senator Norment’s office disputed this characterization of his position as “inaccurate” in a phone call with Fourth Estate.

According to the bill summary, “current law provides that the possession of marijuana may be punished by confinement in jail for not more than 30 days and subject to a fine of not more than $500.”

Every year, the Mason office of Student Financial Aid sends a memo to all students detailing a policy that students convicted of “an offense under any federal or state law involving the possession or sale of a controlled substance” will become ineligible for federal financial aid for a varying period of time, “in accordance with Federal regulations.”

Alternately, convicted students can complete a “qualified drug rehabilitation program,” which involves two random drug tests and requires qualification to receive federal funds from a government agency or program, an insurance company, or a hospital.

If Norment’s bill or a similar bill is passed, it may not have major implications for Mason’s policy towards controlled substances. But it will be another step in the shift toward widespread marijuana decriminalization.

According to the Virginia State Crime Commission:

Decriminalization is NOT legalization.

  • Decriminalization means the removal of criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana for personal use.
  • The punishment is amended from a criminal to a civil offense, but marijuana remains a prohibited substance.

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