Watchdog Suggests Virginia Scale Back Penalties For Excess Pot Possession All other legalized states allow a misdemeanor charge for marijuana possession before they escalate to felony charges, the group says.
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Watchdog Suggests Virginia Scale Back Penalties For Excess Pot Possession

Virginia is about to legalize small quantities of weed, but the law still needs tweaking, says a legislative watchdog. Stock Catalog/Flickr hide caption

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As Virginia prepares to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana on July 1, a legislative review panel is urging the state to dial back its penalties for individuals convicted of possessing too much weed.

The law set to take effect in three weeks allows adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of cannabis legally. Individuals caught holding between one and eight ounces are subject to a $25 civil fine. Anything above eight ounces is considered a felony offense.

But all other states where recreational pot is legal allows a misdemeanor charge before they escalate to felony charges, says a report issued Monday by Virginia's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC). The commission says lawmakers could consider making possession of 2.5 ounces to one pound a misdemeanor, only reaching a felony above one pound.

Starting July 1, Virginians can also grow up to four pot plants at home, but consuming weed in public will still be illegal.

The watchdog group also wants the state's newly created Virginia Cannabis Control Authority (VCCA) to establish clear legal possession amounts for edibles, THC-infused oils, and other concentrated cannabis products. As of now, the state hasn't defined how much of these substances Virginians can possess legally. One ounce of vape oil, for example, can contain much more THC than one ounce of bud.

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The commission's other recommendations include lowering the number of retail locations that medical marijuana licensees can have — currently, they're allowed six locations, when recreational sellers can only have three — and allowing retail operations more time to get their businesses up and running before weed sales become fully legal on Jan. 1, 2024.

The watchdog's recommendations illustrate the complexity in establishing both a functional marketplace and a sensible legal framework for recreational cannabis.

Virginia made history when it became the first southern state to legalize weed earlier this year. After the bill passed the General Assembly, Gov. Ralph Northam successfully pushed to legalize marijuana possession starting July 1, 2021, three years earlier than planned. His proposal was supported by legislators and civil rights groups who said it's unfair to continue prosecuting Virginians for possession while the state establishes a recreational marketplace. Black Virginians — like Black Americans in general — are disproportionately affected by marijuana law enforcement.

It's not clear whether the state will heed any of JLARC's recommendations this year when possession becomes legal. Lawmakers would have to schedule a special session to vote on its proposed changes, and they haven't acted to do so.

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