After signing a bill into law that decriminalized marijuana earlier this year, Governor Ralph Northam formally voiced his support for fully legalizing marijuana in Virginia next year. This is welcome news both for civil rights advocates and cannabis enthusiasts in the Commonwealth.
Recreational marijuana use may be legal in Virginia by 2021 — letting the Commonwealth join states such as Colorado and California, as well as neighboring Washington DC, that allow their residents to freely use cannabis.
Governor Ralph Northam released a report by the Virginia Marijuana Legalization Work Group on Monday, November 30, which outlines five key principles the governor wants to see in any proposed marijuana legislation. These principles are: social and racial equity, public health efforts to curb substance abuse in schools, age limits and ID checks for marijuana purchasers, upholding the Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act — which prohibits cigarette smoking indoors — and ongoing data collection on health, safety, and equity.
House majority leader Charniele Herring sponsored the bill that decriminalized marijuana, which was passed during the 2020 session. Herring is also a sponsor of the studies currently being done on legalization.
“This is a thorough study, so there’s no need to delay. The draft study was 175 pages,” Herring said.
Herring says that legalization of marijuana will be beneficial for the state.
“It’s a revenue producer, and there are some benefits to its medicinal use,” Herring said.
Virginia already allows medical marijuana use, but the proposed legislation would legalize it entirely.
Legalization of marijuana could also be beneficial for communities of color, specifically Black communities, who face harsher penalties for using the drug than white communities. Black Virginians are arrested and convicted for marijuana use at more than three times the rate of white Virginians, according to a report by JLARC.
“There’s been a disproportionate impact on communities of color when it comes to enforcing marijuana laws,” Herring said. “People of color don’t use it more than white people do, but our prosecutions are disproportionate, and we will certainly combat the issue.”
Herring says that there is little that can be done for those who are currently serving jail sentences for possession of marijuana, but that their sentences can be expunged, or the records sealed, when they get out. Marijuana sentences are generally under one year and are served in jails rather than prisons. Northam’s press release states that sealing or expunging records of past marijuana convictions is one of the initiatives that the legislation should include.
On November 16, Northam formally voiced his support for the legalization, saying he intended to introduce and support legislation to legalize marijuana for adult use in Virginia.
“Our Commonwealth has the opportunity to be the first state in the South to take this step, and we will lead with a focus on equity, public health, and public safety,” Northam said in the press release.
Since 2012, 15 states and the District of Columbia have legalized all marijuana use, while 36 states — including Virginia — have legalized medical use.