RICHMOND, Va. — A Monday announcement by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is the first step in what could become the legalization of marijuana in the Commonwealth. Northam said he will look to pass marijuana legislation in the 2021 General Assembly session.
The push for legalizing marijuana in Virginia comes after the Commonwealth passed laws to decriminalize the drug in 2020. Northam believes that Virginia is in a great position to become the first southern state in the country to legalize marijuana.
“It’s time to legalize marijuana in Virginia,” Gov. Northam said. “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.”
Northam said he is working on the legislation with members of the Virginia’s Democratic-controlled General Assembly. The Governor said he expects the legislation to be put up for debate in the 2021 session.
Northam said any legislation passed must address five key issues:
- Social equity racial equity, and economic equity
- Public health
- Protections for young people
- Upholding the Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act
- Data collection
Data collection and social equity have been two key issues that have started to be addressed through the recently passed decriminalization legislation.
A report of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) issued Monday found that Black Virginians are arrested and convicted for marijuana use at more than three times the rate of white Virginians.
"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," Gov. Northam said.
Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini said the marijuana law reform organization supports Governor Northam’s legalization efforts.
“Virginia has taken some important steps forward this year decriminalizing personal possession of small amounts of marijuana and while that will reduce arrests by about 50 to 60 percent, what it won't do is impact the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws between black and white Virginians.”
Pedini, who is also the development director for NORML, said Virginia NORML also believes Governor Northam’s efforts will successfully address issues with the Commonwealth’s existing underground market.
“Legalization neither creates nor normalizes the marijuana market,” they said. “This market already exists in Virginia, and it is widespread, but today this market remains underground and those involved in it remain largely unaccountable. They don't pay taxes. They don't check IDs. And they certainly don't label or lab test their products.”
However, Pedini points out Virginians should not expect to see legal recreational marijuana in the commercial market immediately if Northam’s bill is passed in 2021.
“It will still take some time to get a regulatory model up and running,” they said. “And it could be as many as 24 months before we see the first retail sales.”
Northam said his legislation would only legalize marijuana sales for adults. He said he would also like to see it include education campaigns for children regarding substance abuse
Northam said he would also like his legislation to include education campaigns for children that address the topic of substance abuse prevention.
However, Virginia-based group “Parents Opposed to Pot” argues kids will get their hands on marijuana anyway.
"When has the age of 21 for alcohol ever meant that kids don't get into alcohol?” said Julie Schauer, vice-president of Parents Opposed to Pot. “Really, that doesn't keep kids from getting into liquor cabinets or from other adults sharing it with kids."
Parents Opposed to Pot is staunchly opposed to efforts to legalize the marijuana in Virginia due to the impact it believes the proposal could have on Commonwealth children.
Schauer calls marijuana a “foundation drug” that many kids start with before using other drugs.
“It's the most likely one children will start with, because they think it's harmless,” she said.
Schauer said she also believes the potency of vapes, dabs, and edibles produced nowadays could harm children who consume such marijuana-infused products.
She said she does not believe Virginia officials are up to the task of stopping that scenario.
“It's a product that a lot of politicians are unfamiliar with,” Schauer said. “And they're just listening to the industry. They don't take the other side.”
Northam says he also wants his legislation to require the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forestry, Finance, Health and Human Resources, and Public Safety and Homeland Security to convene a Virginia Marijuana Legalization Work Group to study the impact on the Commonwealth of legalizing the sale and personal use of marijuana.
Northam added he wants the group to report its recommendations to the General Assembly and his office by November 30.