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Virginia just decriminalized marijuana

The state is the 27th to decriminalize or legalize marijuana.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) made marijuana decriminalization a top priority for 2020.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) made marijuana decriminalization a top priority for 2020.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Virginia is decriminalizing marijuana.

On Sunday, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced he approved a bill that will eliminate jail time for simple marijuana possession, leaving a civil penalty with a fine in place. Northam previously said decriminalization was a priority for him, and the newly elected Democratic-controlled legislature soon followed his lead.

This is not full marijuana legalization. Under decriminalization, penalties carrying jail or prison time are removed, but lower-level penalties, like a fine, remain in place and sales remain illegal. Under legalization, all penalties for marijuana possession are removed, and sales are typically allowed.

Some opponents of legalization favor decriminalization as a step toward peeling back America’s harsh drug and criminal justice policies. They see “tough on crime” policies as too punitive and costly, but they don’t want to resort to full legalization, which they fear would make pot too accessible in the US and allow big corporations to sell and market the drug irresponsibly.

The concern for legalization advocates is that decriminalization keeps the ban on selling marijuana, which means users wouldn’t have a legal source for the drug, and criminal organizations would therefore still have a source of revenue they can use for violent operations around the world. The fines, while less punitive than arrests or prison time, can also cause problems, since they’re often applied in a racially disparate manner.

Some activists, including the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, oppose the decriminalization measure on similar grounds: They fear that the bill doesn’t do enough to dismantle the status quo of prohibition, preferring lawmakers legalize outright instead of taking smaller steps.

But state lawmakers and other activists argued that some progress is better than none. So after Democrats this year took control of Virginia’s legislature for the first time in decades, they moved to decriminalize.

Eleven states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana, although Vermont and DC don’t allow sales. Sixteen other states, now including Virginia, have decriminalized.

With decriminalization done, activists in Virginia are likely to turn to legalization. The state legislature, for its part, has approved a study on legalization. But while legalization stands to spread across the US this year, so far no state in the South has fully legalized marijuana.

Supporters of legalization argue that it eliminates the harms of marijuana prohibition: the hundreds of thousands of arrests around the US, the racial disparities behind those arrests, and the billions of dollars that flow from the black market for illicit marijuana to drug cartels that then use the money for violent operations around the world. All of this, legalization advocates say, will outweigh any of the potential downsides — such as increased cannabis use — that might come with legalization.

Opponents, meanwhile, claim that legalization will enable a huge marijuana industry that will market the drug irresponsibly. They point to America’s experiences with the alcohol and tobacco industries in particular, which have built their financial empires in large part on some of the heaviest consumers of their products. This could result in far more people using pot, even if it leads to negative health consequences.

Sidestepping that debate, Virginia has decriminalized cannabis.

For more on marijuana decriminalization and legalization, read Vox’s explainer.