D.C., Maryland, & Virginia Marijuana Laws
The District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) are so uniquely postured — politically and geographically – that the region may serve as a crossroads of sorts for marijuana law reform in the Southeastern United States.
Depending on your side of the Potomac River, possession of marijuana may be:
- completely legal;
- a non-criminal civil fine; or,
- a crime: either a misdemeanor or felony.
In a nutshell, here are the different approaches:
Follow Colorado’s model and implement a regulatory scheme. Treat legalized recreational use the same as alcohol, and allow for prescribed medical use. (Direction Maryland is headed).
Legalize recreational use, but do not implement any regulatory scheme to create a marketplace. (D.C.)
Decriminalize marijuana, but do not legalize recreational use and keep medical use very limited. (Direction Virginia is headed).
Approach 1: Legalized, but Regulated
Maryland is considering going in this direction; 15 other states may also take this approach in 2016.
Marijuana Possession in Maryland (currently)
Less than 10 grams is not a crime, but is punishable by a fine. About a year ago, Maryland passed medical marijuana legislation.
Proposed Legislation in Maryland
The Maryland Control and Revenue Act of 2015 (HB 911) and SB 531 would regulate recreational marijuana use much like how alcohol is regulated.
This proposed legislation would legalize marijuana possession (1 ounce) and permit cultivation of 6 plants. The law would restrict those under the age of 21.
Approach 2: Decriminalize and Keep Medical Use Narrow
Virginia marijuana laws are heading in this direction, but it would not surprise anyone if the proposed legislation (see below) goes nowhere. Virginia, it seems, is taking baby steps in this arena.
Marijuana Possession in Virginia (currently)
Virginia marijuana laws presently make possession of any amount a misdemeanor crime. Depending upon the quantity, it may be a felony (felony intent to distribute). When a person is charged with any crime, an arrest record is created. Thus, even if the charge is dismissed, an arrest record will exist forever. It will then be up to any future employer to determine how to interpret this when it appears on a background check. Current Virginia law does not allow an individual to expunge a possession of marijuana arrest record if the case results in a first-offender dismissal.
A first possession offense may be dismissed upon completion of a program (read more about the first offender program in Virginia), but the defendant will not qualify to expunge the drug arrest (expungement seals a public record).
Proposed Legislation to Change Virginia Marijuana Laws
Looking forward, Senate Bill 686 has been introduced to decriminalize small quantities.
Approach 3: Legalize, Implement Regulation of the Market Later
Washington, D.C. is the odd-one-out.
Residents in D.C. overwhelmingly voted in November, 2014, to legalize marijuana, cultivation, and paraphernalia. Since D.C. is a federal jurisdiction, Congress could block the law the D.C. residents passed (with a margin of about 70%).
Unlike Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington State, the District of Columbia lacks the same regulatory infrastructure to implement regulation and taxation (sales) at this time, however, the D.C. Council may likely follow in the footsteps of the 4 aforementioned states.
The Issues Ahead:
In Virginia, the issue is whether or not the Commonwealth will decriminalize marijuana. It is not expected to implement a regulatory scheme paired with recreational legalization in the near future.
In Maryland, the issue is whether or not it will take the leap from decriminalization of personal use to full legalization with a regulatory infrastructure.
In D.C., the two issues are whether or not the federal government will allow the residents to have a voice first and foremost, and second, how and when D.C. will decide to regulate the market.
Why is Marijuana Illegal?
Who can forget this?
The real reason: officers are able to leverage its illegal nature in order to obtain a tremendous amount of information about other criminal activity. In Virginia, the mere smell of marijuana gives an officer the ability to search a vehicle without a warrant.
It is not uncommon for officers and prosecutors to offer to completely drop charges for information. This obviously can present safety risks to the confidential informant.
The question for Virginia:
We could criminalize playing cards… a percentage of people with playing cards are engaged in illegal gambling. We could criminalize peanuts, and let the police search vehicles or houses with peanuts in plain sight… and that would surely lead to more arrests. We could criminalize anything to give police an upper hand, but it is cheating.
And when you cheat in life, there are usually negative repercussions. In Northern Virginia, we may have law enforcement with a slightly bolstered cache of intelligence on suspects, but the cost is a generation of young adults with permanent drug arrest records who struggle to find jobs in the Commonwealth, lose eligibility to obtain federal student loans, fail to qualify for a security clearance, and/or find out a desired career path is permanently blocked.
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