Drive on: New Virginia law changes punishment for marijuana possession

RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — On Saturday, several new laws will go into effect in Virginia.

One will help more people keep their driver’s license after being charged with marijuana possession. It will allow a judge to opt for additional community service instead of automatically suspending someone’s driver’s license for six months. HB 2051 / SB 1091 impacts adults who were not operating a vehicle at the time of the offense.

It’s something Ryan Johnson wishes had been in place when his license was suspended. When he was in college, he was caught with marijuana at a party.

“It definitely took me by surprise when I found out that my license was going to automatically get suspended for something that didn’t involve a car,” he said.

That’s why he rallied behind the push to get the law changed. He emailed representatives, went to the General Assembly, attended hearings and gave his testimony in front of lawmakers.

“I definitely want to accept the consequences for my own actions, but this kind of stepped beyond that because it affected my family and people close to me as well,” he said.

Simple tasks he once took for granted — like going to the grocery store, class or laundromat — became time-consuming without the ability to drive.

“When you take that away from people, you completely handcuff them,” he said.

Jenn Michelle Pedini is the executive director of Virginia NORML. The organization works to reform marijuana laws.

“This bill will impact thousands of Virginians this year,” she said.

Pedini said about 22,000 people are arrested each year for marijuana possession in Virginia. For some, they don’t just lose their license.

“In a low-income community, 40 percent of defendants are likely to lose their jobs when they lose their license,” said Pedini.

She said access to a car is crucial.

“When a defendant is able to maintain their license, then they’re also able to complete their community service more effectively. They’re able to get to work, to get their children to school and to complete whatever is required in their sentence so that they can move on from this infraction.”

The law had bipartisan support.

“We’ve had this legislation multiple years now and it was really exciting this past session to have it introduced in both sides — in the Senate by a Democrat and in the House by a Republican,” said Pedini.

The law is set to go into effect July 1 — as long as Virginia does not lose federal funding. The U.S. Department of Transportation still has to make a ruling on that.

Pedini said other states that have implemented similar policies have not lost funding.

To see other laws going into effect July 1, click here.