Gov. Ralph Northam will push for the Democratic-controlled General Assembly to legalize recreational marijuana during the upcoming legislative session, which would make it the first state in the South to do so.
“We are going to move forward with legalizing marijuana in Virginia,” Northam said in a meeting with reporters Monday morning.
The legislature will convene in January for 30 days, and Northam hopes his backing will get marijuana legalization over the line. Northam had taken a more reserved position on marijuana legalization, but two studies reviewing how to set up and regulate the industry have led to a shift in his support.
“Legalizing marijuana will happen in Virginia, and as it happens, we want to make sure it’s regulated properly and we do it the right way,” said Northam, a physician who said he’s never tried the drug.
Virginia has been relaxing its policies on marijuana in recent years. It allowed medical use of cannabidiol in 2017, and then authorized a medical marijuana program two years later. This year, Northam signed a law that reduced the penalty for people caught with small amounts of marijuana to a $25 fine.
Legislators have introduced bills to fully legalize and regulate adult use of marijuana, but they’ve never made it to the floor of the House or Senate.
Public support for marijuana legalization has been steadily increasing over the past decade. A poll last year from the Pew Research Center showed 67% of Americans now back marijuana legalization, up from 62% in 2018. Opposition to legalization also dropped to 32%, down from 34% last year. A majority of Republicans and Democrats support legalizing pot, although more Democrats do than Republicans.
Marijuana legalization has had big victories in the past few years. The first two states — Colorado and Washington — legalized in 2012. This month, voters in four states approved referendums legalizing marijuana, making it 15 states plus Washington, D.C., that have legalized recreational weed.
If Virginia were to authorize marijuana legalization, it would take over a year or two to get the regulatory structure in place and begin licensing companies to operate, according to General Assembly’s oversight commission. It would cost about $8 million to $20 million to set up. By year five, sales could generate up to $300 million in revenue for state and local governments, according to a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission report, the first of two studies done this year on marijuana legalization. The Northam administration will be releasing another report soon.
The JLARC study showed legalization would create more than 11,000 jobs, although most would be lower-paying positions in security, production, packaging and retail.
Among the issues the legislature would have to figure out during the session would be changing the laws for possession and establishing an age limit, regulating public use and impaired driving, deciding whether to allow or prohibit people to grow marijuana at home, and the framework for the sale and distribution.
The Northam administration is also interested in broadening public education on marijuana and substance abuse. Marijuana legalization would increase the use among adults, but the JLARC study found the long-term effects on youth to be uncertain.
“We want to make sure everything we do going forward is focused on that public health aspect,” said Dr. Daniel Carey, the state’s secretary of health. “Our goal is not in legalization to encourage use but to make sure adults are making informed decisions and choices about whether to use or not.”
Part of the JLARC study included examining how to redress the disproportionate impact to Black Virginians. Possible avenues include less stringent license requirements so people with, for example, marijuana offenses, aren’t blocked from entering the market.
Virginia Democrats have emphasized legalization is one that is important for equity in the commonwealth. Black and white Virginians use marijuana at similar rates, according to JLARC. Virginia arrests 20,000 to 30,000 people a year for marijuana-related offenses, with 90% of them for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
However, Black Virginians are arrested and convicted at a higher rate than white Virginians. That happens across nearly all localities, and JLARC found that localities in Western Virginia had some of the highest disproportionate arrest rates in Virginia.
“This has become an equity issue and, and our administration has always been focused on equity, but certainly in the last couple of years that has become a greater focus,” Northam said.
“The inequities are incredible,” said Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William.
Decriminalization and legalization would reduce marijuana arrests and convictions by 85%, according to JLARC.
The legislature will also likely take up the matter of sealing criminal records related to marijuana. Lawmakers have tried to pass marijuana expungement legislation for years, and while it would get out of the Senate with bipartisan support, it would die in a Republican-controlled subcommittee.
An automatic expungement process to seal the records of everyone with misdemeanor marijuana convictions would benefit 120,000 Virginians, with over half of them being Black Virginians, according to JLARC.
“It’s so incredibly important we think about those communities that have been ravaged by the criminalization of marijuana,” said Janice Underwood, Virginia’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion.