First Offender For Marijuana

While marijuana is seeing a renaissance of sorts in other States, the simple possession of the controversial weed is still a misdemeanor offense in the Old Dominion.  Unlike Colorado and Washington State which have recently decriminalized possession and recreation use of the plant, Virginia has rigidly stayed the line. 
  A first offense for simple possession of the substance is punishable by up to thirty days in jail and a $500 fine as well as a six month suspension of your driver’s license, even if you were nowhere near your vehicle at the time of the offense.  A second or subsequent offense ups the ante and is a Class 1 misdemeanor. In addition to the six month driver’s license suspension, a second offense is punishable by up to 12 months in jail and $2500 fine.  Distribution of marijuana is highly frowned upon in Virginia.  Distribution of a half ounce or less is a Class 1 misdemeanor, which in an extreme case could include simply passing a joint.  Distribution of more than a half ounce is a Class 5 felony!  As a Class 5 felony, distributing more than a half ounce can land you in prison for 1 to 10 years.  Distribution of more the five pounds in Virginia can result in a prison sentence between 5 to 30 years.  Such a sentence can seem particularly harsh considering the substance is now considered legal by two States.   Fortunately for the recreational user or the innocent possessor, Virginia still imposes a fairly high burden upon the prosecutor to prove constructive possession.  Unfortunately for the majority who are unaware of the standard, many people incriminate themselves during any search for the plant in an attempt to be cooperative with police.    In Virginia mere ownership or occupancy of the vehicle or premises where the marijuana is found does not create a presumption of guilt.  It is simply a factor for the court to consider, which means that if an officer discovers marijuana during a search of your vehicle or home and nothing else, you have a good chance of getting the charges dismissed.  On the other hand, if you assist the officer by informing him where the marijuana can be found or otherwise admit to knowledge of its whereabouts, it’s an open and shut case for the officer.  The cooperation requested by an officer during a search rarely benefits the defendant and more than likely simply insures a later conviction.    Now for the multitude of marijuana users who did not even look at the penalties or understand the burden of proof before incriminating themselves, there is still a possible alternative to conviction for a first offense possession charge.  If a person has not been convicted previously of any drug offense and is willing to attend a first offender program under a probationary status the court may allow them to complete such a program as a means to have the charges dismissed. The program will require the defendant to undergo a substance abuse assessment, perform community service and attend a substance abuse program for a period of time as well as submit to random drug screens and adequately complete any other conditions required by the court before earning such a dismissal.  The downside to the first offender program however is that failure has a real possibility of resulting in jail time being imposed at sentencing.  The court rarely rewards a defendant for trying but failing to complete the program and is more likely to view the failed attempt as a flagrant disregard of the court’s imposed conditions.    As always the best defense is a good offense, meaning don’t break the law in the first place, however if you find yourself charged with any crime your first step should be a consultation with an experienced attorney.