Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has big plans for 2021. Among them, he says, is legalizing marijuana in an equitable fashion. During his State of the Commonwealth Address and a series of tweets following, he laid out a list of goals for the coming year. Among them is a push toward legalization for recreational cannabis. “It’s time to join 16 other states and make marijuana legal, and end the current system rooted in inequity,” the Governor tweeted. “By legalizing and taxing it, we can use the revenue to help communities most disproportionately impacted by the inequities in our laws.” Governor Northam’s proposal implies recreational cannabis sales could start up in under two years. The goal outlined in the proposal says sales would begin on January 1st, 2023.

A tweet of Governor Ralph Northam's with launch plans Source: @GovernorVA

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The Legal Framework

The measure the administration unveiled covers all aspects of legalization. Adults 21 and older would be allowed to purchase and possess up to a single ounce of cannabis. Adults in that same age group could also cultivate up to four plants for personal use, only two of which can be mature at any given time. If you’re caught with more than one ounce but less than five pounds of weed, the punishment is civil, not criminal: a simple $25 fine. Any and all cannabis products would have to be clearly labeled and contained within child-safe packaging. Advertising that could draw kids’ eyes would be regulated and limited. The licensing categories include cultivation, manufacturing, testing, wholesale, and retail. People can overlap which licenses they hold. The licensing program is specifically designed to buoy communities disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs. The new Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board along with the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund and Virginia Cannabis Equity Business Loan Fund would handle that portion of the bill. Those three groups, should the measure pass, will identify specific applicants who would be eligible for low-interest loans, or in some cases loans with no interest if they open a business. It also would set a 21% state tax rate on cannabis products sold in Virginia. There would also be local sales tax on top of that, and localities have the option of tacking on an extra 3% tax. The money raised would be divided among four different goals: 40% for funding Pre-K education; 30% toward a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund; 25% for substance abuse and treatment programs; and 5% for public health initiatives. The state expects to bring in $564 million from cannabis in the first five years after legalization. Although the product would be legal statewide, local municipalities can choose whether they want businesses selling or producing the product to operate within their jurisdiction. The bill tells city councils to proactively opt-in if they’re comfortable.

Mixed Response from Influential Groups

Several groups have already stepped in to endorse the bill. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus has leant its support. The Caucus says its particularly inspired by the language in the bill that strives for equity. “[I’m] proud to work with the Virginia Black Caucus to equitably legalize marijuana in Virginia,” Governor Northam tweeted. “Among other measures, this bill expunges prior marijuana convictions, reinvests money in over-policed communities, and promotes diverse ownership in the industry.” The American Civil Liberties Union, however, disagrees. The ACLU is fearful that because marijuana would still be illegal for another two years, that would mean two more years of Black people being arrested in connection with the product. The ACLU has criticized the Governor before for not doing enough to stop the harm of the War on Drugs. In a letter to the Governor after his previous efforts toward legalization, the ACLU wrote, "As many Virginians’ voiced during this session, the “smell of marijuana” is routinely used as a justification for traffic stops and “stop-and-frisk” activities that disproportionately impact Black and Brown people and communities of color. These interactions can lead to unrelated charges for which there otherwise would be no probable cause or to undue use of force. Especially given the current health crisis and the heightened risk of serious harm to people from COVID-19, downsizing the footprint of the criminal legal system should be part of Virginia’s COVID-19 public health response and part of the way that Virginia looks at its criminal legal system. Virginia should address racially-biased marijuana enforcement and change laws that unnecessarily and unjustifiably lead to more people interacting with the criminal legal system." Under the new bill, past convictions related solely to marijuana crimes that would no longer be illegal can be expunged.

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Studies on Legalization in the State

The CATO institute says within the state of Virginia, enforcement of marijuana prohibition cost a total of $81.2 million in 2016. The Virginia Branch of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, stipulates that based on that study, Virginia would have spent over $100 million in 2017 and 2018. NORML says in 2018, marijuana arrests accounted for 59% of all drug arrests made in the state, leading to 28,866 total arrests. In 2019, that number was 26,470. The State of Virginia’s study on the matter found that Black Virginians are 3.5 more likely to be arrested for marijuana use or possession, even though Black and White people in the state use the product in similar rates. Simple possession of marijuana was decriminalized in May of 2020, and that law kicked in July 1st of that year. That same law created the Virginia Marijuana Legalization Work Group made up of government officials, experts on cannabis policy, healthcare professionals, and a variety of community leaders. They were tasked with studying the potential outcomes of legalizing adult-use cannabis in marijuana. The task force looked into taxation, banking, criminal justice reform and impacts, licensing and regulation possibilities, and consumer safety. Then, the following November, the Work Group released a report breaking down its findings and recommendations:

  •         “Social equity, racial equity, and economic equity. Marijuana prohibition historically has been based in discrimination, and criminalization laws have disproportionately harmed minority communities. Legislation should focus on undoing these harms by including initiatives such as social equity license programs, access to capital, community reinvestment, and sealing or expunging records of past marijuana-related convictions.
  •         Public health. Legislation should include substance abuse prevention efforts in schools and communities.
  •         Protections for young people. As a pediatrician, Governor Northam will require any legislation include protections for Virginia’s youth, including age limits, mandatory ID checks, and education campaigns.
  •         Upholding the Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act. Legislation should be aligned with the Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act prohibiting indoor tobacco use, which Governor Northam championed as a state Senator.
  •         Data collection. Legislation should ensure Virginia collects appropriate and ongoing information on safety, health, and equity.”

“Our Commonwealth has an 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. I look forward to working with the General Assembly to get this right,” the Governor said after that report came out.