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Va. lawmakers write marijuana crime into budget

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RICHMOND — Several lawmakers called out Virginia’s budget negotiators June 1 for adding a new marijuana possession crime in the state budget in a process that lacked transparency and public input.

Fairfax Democratic Sens. Janet Howell and George Barker, the chair and vice chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, negotiated the state’s new budget in private talks with House Appropriations Chair Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach.

The budget creates a new misdemeanor crime for possession of 4 ounces of marijuana in public and comes after the legislature in 2021 legalized small amounts of marijuana for personal use by adults.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, told colleagues in the Senate it was rare for the legislature to create a new crime in the budget and said she hoped it wouldn’t do it again.

Previous legislative discussions on marijuana allowed for public comment from people who “had been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs,” McClellan said, but the current process didn’t.

“A handful of people that didn’t include a single member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus deciding new criminal penalties … with no real opportunity for public input is concerning,” she said.

Asked about the concern, Howell said, “It’s so convoluted, but I would refer people back to the JLARC study that recommended that.”

She was referencing a study a year ago by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission that recommended Virginia create a misdemeanor charge for adults who have what the state deems to be too much marijuana. Such proposals already failed twice this year during the legislative process.

Several other lawmakers also criticized the decision by Howell, Barker and Knight to write marijuana policy into law without the usual feedback and transparency.

“Re-criminalization is sending us in the wrong direction,” said Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said the budget leaders stuck bad marijuana policy in the budget.

Even some budget conferees — the small group of lawmakers who help write the budget — were caught by surprise over the marijuana provision, which was just released publicly Sunday.

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, were Senate conferees who signed off on the budget but noted their objection to the marijuana item.

Democrats legalized small amounts of marijuana for people 21 and older in 2021. Adults can possess up to an ounce and grow up to four plants in their homes in Virginia. Possession of any amount above an ounce and up to a pound is illegal but punishable by a $25 civil infraction. Possession of more than a pound is a felony.

Once Gov. Glenn Youngkin signs the budget and it goes into effect July 1, possession of 4 ounces or more of marijuana in public becomes a class three misdemeanor, and a second offense becomes a class two misdemeanor, which can result in jail time.

A coalition of marijuana reform advocates issued a statement saying the move takes Virginia backward.

“Research and data have already outlined the historic disparate enforcement of these laws against Black Virginians,” the statement from the Virginia CannaJustice Coalition said.

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