Virginia Votes to Legalize Marijuana

Photo from the Chicago Tribune.

By Terrance Turner

Feb. 6, 2021

The Virginia General Assembly voted yesterday to legalize marijuana in the state. The Virginia House of Delegates and Senate both passed bills that would legalize manufacture, sale, and possession of cannabis. This is a historic vote. Rolling Stone pointed out: “Virginia will be the first of the Southern states to legalize weed.”

The vote fell largely along party lines, says the Virginian-Pilot. ABC News reports that the House of Delegates passed its bill by a vote of 55-42. The Senate advanced its bill 23-15. Both measures legalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana for those 21 and older. Both measures would expunge pot-related convictions, starting July 1. Both would begin retail cannabis sales in 2024. Both would use the biggest portion of the proceeds to fund pre-K education for at-risk kids. And both must be combined into a single bill of legislation, which Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to sign. Gov. Northam (D-VA) voiced support for legalization in November.

“Legalization is expected to bring in substantial tax revenues,” ABC News stated. “A recent study conducted by the legislature’s research and watchdog agency, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, found that legalizing and taxing commercial marijuana sales could generate between $154 and $308 million by the fifth year of sales.” (When legal sales begin, revenues will go towards public health programs, addiction treatment, and pre-K, per Rolling Stone.)

The commission’s study also found that Black Virginians comprise a disproportionately high percentage of individuals arrested and convicted of marijuana offenses. From 2010–2019, the average arrest rate of Black individuals for marijuana possession was 3.5 times higher than the arrest rate for white individuals, according to the study. That study found that blacks were also convicted at a much higher rate — 3.9 times higher than whites.

A 2018 Daily Press investigation found Black Virginians were far more likely to be charged with marijuana possession and go to jail if convicted, even on a first offense. Half of those charged with first-offense possession were African American despite the state’s population being only about 20% Black, the Virginian-Pilot adds.

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, who is the chief patron of the House bill, said the legislation is a matter of urgency for people of color who have been disproportionately penalized for marijuana-related offenses. Virginia Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth) also stressed that the prosecution of marijuana use disproportionately harms Black and brown Virginians.

“If you want to help marginalized communities, here is an opportunity,” he said. “This is an opportunity to invest in those communities that have been decimated by the so-called war on drugs and to give us an economic leg up.” He added that there are “legal pharmaceuticals […] sold at your local CVS and Walgreens that cause way more deaths than anything that marijuana — cannabis — will do.”

Virginia’s act may foreshadow a national trend. A large majority of Americans (68%) favor legalization, according to a recent Gallup poll. Newsweek reports that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) issued a joint statement announcing plans to federally decriminalize marijuana on Monday. The senators, who have all previously introduced marijuana reform bills, said they hope to draft legislation aimed at ending federal prohibition soon.

“The War on Drugs has been a war on people — particularly people of color,” said a statement issued by the senators, quoted by CNBC. “Ending the federal marijuana prohibition is necessary to right the wrongs of this failed war and end decades of harm inflicted on communities of color across the country,” they said. “But that alone is not enough. As states continue to legalize marijuana, we must also enact measures that will lift up people who were unfairly targeted in the War on Drugs.”

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