One Step Closer Cannabis Decriminalization

By: Kierra Johnson

As per usual, Virginia is the blueprint for progressive legislation in the South, and the issue of cannabis is a great example. This year, there are a couple of bills that tackle the issue of cannabis usage and criminalization, and if passed, they could bring Virginia one step closer to full legalization. 

For those with a criminal history of marijuana possession, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to gain access to housing and many public programs. HB 452 aims to expand the qualifications for the first offender drug program by allowing people with a previous misdemeanor marijuana charge to participate. This will give many people a second chance to avoid prosecution and the general hindrance of having a drug conviction on their records. Hopefully this bill passes, as it will only help the progression of cannabis legislation throughout the South. Decriminalization, with the current stipulations, still allows for people to be fined, convicted, and incarcerated in an age of cannabis startups and investment in cannabis stocks. The goal should be no prosecutions for cannabis, but bills similar to HB 452 are a great start. 

  While it is only an amendment to an existing provision, HB 149 aims to give further protection to employees who use cannabis oil medicinally. The current law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who use cannabis oil as medicine, but HB 149 specifies the parameters of fair usage. The bill says that “such use must conform to the laws of the Commonwealth and that such protections extend to the employees of the Commonwealth and other public bodies” (Virginia LIS). This extension of the current law should pass, because just like HB 452, this is a great step toward full decriminalization.
  The use of cannabis, whether for recreation or medicine, should not open anyone up to discrimination or criminalization. As citizens of the Commonwealth continue to hold their representatives accountable for creating legislation that will protect the general public, progressive cannabis legislation is vital, as thousands of people are still incarcerated or barred from public programs because of their convictions. Bills such as HB 452 and HB 149 would be small improvements if they are passed, but these small steps are necessary if the ultimate goal of full legalization is to ever be reached.

It’s everyone’s favorite time of year! You know, when Virginia legislators actually do their jobs.

Seriously, why is a part-time legislature even allowed? Our representatives literally spend like 75% of the year just… not representing us.

Well, that’s not entirely fair. Many legislators (at least the good ones) do, actually, work hard to represent their constituents outside of session. The issue is more that having a part-time legislature means that all these representatives need to have other jobs that split their time–another barrier to entry for those who are already working two, maybe three jobs and another degree of separation between our representatives and us.

Due to the nature of the part-time legislature, most of our representatives are people who are lawyers, real estate agents, and others who can afford the time, money, and energy to campaign for office and then hack it on a part-time salary. That in turn practically ensures that the people who make it to office will have *at least* a modest degree of separation from regular working people, making it harder for them to understand and fairly represent us, even when they are in session.

But I’m getting away from myself–let’s talk specifically about session.

The VA legislature finished up last session without wrapping up, well, much of anything. In fact, it was the 6th straight year that the legislature left its most important work on the table, meaning they had to hold a special session after the conclusion of the regularly scheduled session in order to, you know, do their jobs.

VA’s part-time legislature is a relic of a bygone era, a time when things were simpler and slower, and you could actually get away with ignoring what was going on for ¾ of the year. Unfortunately, that time has passed–if it ever existed. There are new issues every day, and even full-time legislatures struggle with the monumental task of staying on top of everything. No wonder our part-timers can’t cut it.

I mean, think about it. We have technology that is developing at an exponential rate every day, but we have a government built on rules from a time when horse-drawn carriages were the new-fangled mode of transportation.

As is, the legislature is woefully unequipped to handle our fast-paced, rapidly changing world, and that’s without even addressing the issue that all the feet-dragging and squabbling caused by bipartisan “compromise” brings about.

So, should we have a full-time legislature? I mean, it would mean more work for me, since I’d have to monitor their shenanigans throughout the year, so, not in love with that, but maybe, just maybe, we deserve a legislature that at least *tries* to fully represent its people. Not to sound like a starry-eyed idealist or anything.

A full-time legislature would mean full-time salaries and full-time representatives. Our electeds could afford to dedicate all their time to representing us, and so they would be much more likely to do so. In the meantime, though, the best we can do is to pay attention while they *are* in session. I’m going to be doing just that, and I’ve offered some helpful tips on how to follow along in my other blog post.

What to Watch for In and How to Keep Up With Virginia’s Legislative Session

Welcome to 2024, and welcome to Virginia’s brand new legislative session! As I wrote in my other recent blog post, Virginia has a part-time legislature, meaning they’re only in session for about ¼ of the year (I had some things to say about that).

Anyway, you may be wondering: how do I keep up with all this? It is, after all, a lot, and in a short span of time. Well, there are several ways.

Non-Partisan Resources

  • Your first option is to directly follow bills on Virginia’s Legislative Information System. This system is comprehensive, but also cumbersome–especially if you’re new to this. I would only recommend using LIS if you know *exactly* what you’re looking for, or else you’re gonna end up giving yourself a headache (don’t ask how I know).
  • There are other options, though. The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) has some great resources on their website that are a little easier to navigate. They’re what I usually use. They also have an app that I have yet to check out, but it’s my understanding that it’s absolutely loaded with a wealth of information on every legislator and every kind of bill (which I believe is new this year).
  • UVA’s Center for Politics has some great resources as well. If you want a refresher on how everything works or just a nice landing page for a whole bunch of resources that are neatly organized, I would check them out. There is too much to capture in one screenshot, so I would recommend heading over to the site to see what they have to offer.
  • While you’re at it, why not follow your representative? They will be sharing updates throughout session, and, while they won’t be comprehensive, they will be a good place to start. Use this tool to double-check who your representatives are, then follow them on Twitter (I’m not calling it X–Twitter is the only thing I will deadname). Many will use other socials as well, but most often, Twitter is the most up-to-date due to the nature of the platform.

Partisan Resources

You could also follow me! I will be covering lots of stuff during session, but I am only one man, so I won’t be able to get into everything–though I am going to do my best to keep on top of everything while still posting about general disinformation trends.

Session is going to be a lot, but it’s incredibly important. I hope you join me for the ride, but even if you don’t, you should stay informed about what your representatives are up to. How else are we going to hold them to account?

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