Last week I represented two young people who were both charged with possession of marijuana in Virginia. But their cases were treated very differently. The reason is that one was charged in federal court and the other in state court.
Federal marijuana law is still very different from the new Virginia state marijuana law. If you are charged by the federal government, you will not get the benefit of Virginia’s decriminalization of marijuana that went into effect last July. That is because Virginia state law does not always apply in federal territory, such as military bases or federal highways (George Washington Parkway, for example).
My first client made a wrong turn entering Quantico Marine Base in Prince William County. He was stopped by military authorities who smelled marijuana, searched his vehicle, a found a small amount of cannabis. Quantico and the roads entering the gates are federal property, so federal law applies. Under federal law, marijuana possession is punished as a misdemeanor and carries up to one year in jail and a fine of at least $1,000. Fortunately, after trial my client was eligible for a first-offender dismissal because he had no prior criminal history.
My second client had a much easier time of things because she was charged under the new Virginia law, which makes marijuana possession merely a civil offense (like a traffic ticket) with a maximum $25 fine. This client actually had her case dismissed completely (due to some clever lawyering). But even if she had been found responsible, she would not have a criminal record or any probation.
The federal government will remain tough on marijuana possession until Congress passes a bill changing the current law. Until then, marijuana users must be wary of carrying marijuana while in federal territory. Doing so anywhere around a military or government installation or any area patrolled by the U.S. Park Police will send you to federal court rather than state court.
It is your responsibility to be aware of where you are and what law controls. Mistake of law is never a defense. And Virginia cannot help you on federal property. The U.S. Park Police have jurisdiction over various parks and roads in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, and Stafford counties and the City of Alexandria. Other federal law enforcement will nail you on Ft. Belvoir and Quantico.
Know the law, know your rights, and always ask for a lawyer before agreeing to answer questions or allow a search.