Virginia bill would loosen penalties for pot possession

WASHINGTON — The Virginia General Assembly is considering legislation that would loosen penalties for possessing marijuana, scrapping a policy that leads to offenders automatically losing their driver’s licenses.

Under current state law, people lose their license for six months if they are convicted of a drug offense, including pot possession. But that would change under a bill passed by the Virginia Senate on Thursday. On a vote of 38–2, senators approved a measure allowing people convicted of first-offense possession of marijuana to keep their driver’s licenses, ultimately leaving the decision in the hands of the courts.

“This would provide for judicial discretion on whether or not they lose the license,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Virginians lose their licenses for drug offenses nearly 39,000 times each year, Ebbin said.

“All the states that border Virginia do not suspend their licenses for drug offenses, [and neither] do the overwhelming majority of other states,” he said.

Another sponsor of the bill, Republican Sen. Bill Stanley, said existing law is part of an outdated “war on drugs.”

“What we’re trying to do in this very good statute is give somebody the opportunity of a second chance for making a dumb mistake,” Stanley said.

The exemption would only apply to adults. Juveniles convicted of marijuana possession would still be subject to the license suspension, the legislation states.

In the House of Delegates, the legislation passed a hurdle this week, clearing a subcommittee on a vote of 11–0.

Also Thursday, the Senate approved a bill expanding the number of ailments that can be treated with two derivatives of the marijuana plant.

The chamber voted on the measure that allows people with cancer, HIV, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and a number of other diseases to access cannabidiol oil or THC-A oil with written certification by a practitioner. Existing law allows the oils, which don’t create a high, to be used only for intractable epilepsy.

Republican Sen. Dick Black said he worried such legislation could open the door for legalized marijuana. Democratic Sen. Dick Saslaw disputed that idea, saying “we’re not going to become a nation of potheads” because people with ailments are using the oils.

The measure still needs approval from the House.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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