Possessing small amounts of marijuana is no longer a criminal offense in Virginia. As of July 1, the penalty for Virginians found to be in possession of an ounce or less of the drug will be a $25 civil fine. Police in the state have enforced marijuana laws rigorously in recent years and arrested 29,000 people for possessing the drug in 2018 alone. Under the new law, the odor of marijuana still provides police officers with probable cause to search individuals or their vehicles without first obtaining a warrant.
Prior to Governor Ralph Northam signing the bill into law, the penalties for possessing small quantities of marijuana were a $500 fine and up to 30 days in a county jail. The penalties for repeat offenders were even more severe, and individuals possessing concentrated forms of the drug could be charged with a felony. Felony charges can still be filed in Virginia against individuals found with an ounce or less of marijuana if police also find items commonly used to distribute and package the drug such as digital scales and small plastic bags.
The new law prevents the details of civil marijuana citations from being sent to Virginia’s Central Criminal Records Exchange, and the Virginia State Police has been instructed to seal the records of individuals previously charged with and convicted of possessing the drug. Lawmakers concede that this measure will have little impact as most companies obtain information about criminal charges from court records and not the CCRE when they perform background checks.
Certain products that are legal in Virginia, such as hemp and CBD oils, smell like marijuana when they are burned. When police say that such odors provided officers with probable cause, criminal defense attorneys with experience in cases involving drug crimes could question whether individuals should be subjected to law enforcement searches for engaging in behavior that may not violate any laws.