Virginia Bill To Prevent Marijuana From Being Used As Evidence Of Child Abuse Heads To Governor’s Desk

Lawmakers in Virginia have given final approval to legislation to prevent the state from using marijuana alone as evidence of child abuse or neglect. The change is meant to protect parents and guardians from discrimination around cannabis use and possession, which the commonwealth legalized in 2021.

On Monday the Senate signed off on SB 115, which the House passed 54–45 last week. An identical measure, HB 833, has also been approved by both chambers. The legislation now goes to Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who can sign the bill into law, veto it, suggest amendments or allow it to take effect without his signature.

Should it become law, the measure would provide that drug testing in child custody and visitation matters “shall exclude testing for any substance permitted for lawful use by an adult” under the state’s alcohol, cannabis and drug laws. A person’s “lawful possession or consumption” of those substances, it says, “shall not serve as a basis to restrict custody or visitation unless other facts establish that such possession or consumption is not in the best interest of the child.”

On its path to the governor’s desk, the legislation won unanimous or near-unanimous approval in votes on the Senate floor. The House was more divided, with Democrats generally in favor, though the proposal garnered some Republican votes, as well.

The House version of the bill was sponsored by Del. Rae Cousins (D) and the Senate measure, meanwhile, was led by Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas (D).

According to a Department of Planning and Budget summary of the legislation, an enactment clause would direct the state Board of Social Services to amend its regulations, guidance documents and other materials to comply with the new provisions. The changes would incur no fiscal impact, the department’s statement said.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of the advocacy group Marijuana Justice, which backed the bill, told Marijuana Moment earlier this month that she was optimistic about the governor’s support for the bill, noting that the administration gave suggestions last year that were taken into account along with feedback from legislators.

“We are excited that outdated prohibition laws are being changed in order to keep families together,” Wise said at the time. “This is an important part of ending the drug war and decriminalization that’s critical for generational survival in communities targeted by law enforcement.”

JM Pedini, NORML’s development director and executive director for Virginia NORML, told lawmakers during committee consideration of the bill that the group had received numerous calls and emails about cases in which a parent or guardian’s status as a medical marijuana patient had been used to withhold custody or visitation rights.

Also this week, lawmakers struck a deal on legislation that would legalize and regulate retail marijuana sales in Virginia following legalization of use, possession and limited home cultivation in 2021. On Wednesday evening, each chamber signed off on the bills approved in the opposite chamber, sending them to the governor’s desk.

Despite legislative approval, the plan to legalize retail sales is not a done deal. The governor signaled last month that he doesn’t have “any interest” in legalizing sales under the Democrat-led plans, though he has not indicated whether he’ll veto the bill.

“What remains to be seen,” Pedini at NORML told Marijuana Moment after Wednesday’s votes, “is if Governor Youngkin agrees with the majority of Virginians that it’s time to take control of the marijuana market out of the hands of illicit operators and instead place it behind an age-verified counter where it will be sold only to adults 21 and older.”

The state legislature earlier this week also passed a bill to protect public sector workers, such as government officials and teachers, from being fired for medical marijuana use, sending the measure to Youngkin.

Meanwhile a cannabis resentencing bill, SB 696, from Sen. Angelia Williams Graves (D), was reported out of a House committee Wednesday and next heads to the chamber floor. If approved, it would mandate that individuals incarcerated for certain marijuana offenses would receive automatic resentencing hearings and their punishments adjusted.

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Photo elements courtesy of rawpixel and Philip Steffan.

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