The attorney general of Virginia held a cannabis summit on Wednesday, with representatives of states that have legalized marijuana sharing their insights as lawmakers in the Commonwealth prepare to push reform legislation in the coming session.
This event came one day after a lawmaker prefiled a bill to legalize marijuana for adult use and expand the state’s existing limited medical cannabis program.
The event featured panels on marijuana decriminalization, social equity, public health, hemp, CBD and creating a pathway for eventual legalization. The goal was to answer policy questions and inform legislation, which Attorney General Mark Herring (D) hopes will start with decriminalization and expungements and later adult-use legalization.
Herring: “I don’t believe Virginia’s current system of needlessly criminalizing cannabis is working. The negative consequences of the current approach fall disproprtionately on African Americans and other people of color.”
— Martin Austermuhle (@maustermuhle) December 11, 2019
“I don’t believe that Virginia’s current approach of criminalizing cannabis is working,” Herring said in his opening remarks. “It is needlessly creating criminals and burdening Virginians with convictions.”
Today we're bringing together legislators, stakeholders, and policy experts to plot a course for a smarter, fairer, more just cannabis policy in VA. For me, that means decriminalizing now, resolving past convictions, & moving to legal, regulated adult use.https://t.co/aqWxQCVPIg
— Mark Herring (@MarkHerringVA) December 11, 2019
“The human and social costs are enormous, in addition to the millions of dollars it costs Virginia taxpayers. And the negative consequences of the current approach fall disproportionately on African Americans and people of color,” he said. “It’s clear to me that the time for cannabis reform has come. Justice demands it. Virginians are demanding it. And I’m going to help make sure we get this right.”
Watch video of the Virginia Cannabis Summit below:
Representatives from Colorado and Illinois discussed law enforcement and equity in regulated marijuana markets.
The prospects of passing reform measures greatly increased in Virginia after November’s election, which saw Democrats reclaim control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in decades. Herring said the timing is right to “plot a course for a smarter, fairer, more just cannabis policy” in the state.
Sen. Dave Marsden (D), co-founder of the legislature’s recently established Cannabis Caucus, said at the summit that ensuring that the legal market is equitable is paramount.
.@SenDaveMarsden, who co-founded the new Cannabis Caucus, says focusing on equity will be important. “We can’t substitute a civil process for a criminal one and not expect it to lead to disparities,” he says of decriminalization, noting how people of color still impacted most.
— Martin Austermuhle (@maustermuhle) December 11, 2019
“We can’t substitute a civil process for a criminal one and not expect it to lead to disparities,” he said.
“Following several years of forming consensus around medical cannabis products, we have to be ready to take action in the upcoming legislative session to further reform our laws in this arena,” he said in a press release. “This effort will include a more robust medical cannabis program and Attorney General Herring’s summit is a big step in ensuring we are knowledgeable on the issue and prepared to do this right.”
“Virginia is ready for evidence-based reform and that is what we will provide.”
Del. Stephen Heretick (D) said the summit “is a great opportunity for me and my fellow legislators to learn from the experiences of other states as we consider how to create more fair, just, equitable, and effective cannabis laws here in Virginia.”
Decriminalization is the first proposal on the agenda when the next session starts, the attorney general said. That would fulfill a campaign promise of Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who ran on the issue in 2017 and talked about in his State of the Commonwealth address this year.
“It’s time for public policy to catch up with public opinion, and NORML applauds Attorney General Herring for his efforts to foster and advance evidence-based cannabis laws,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML said. “We look forward to supporting the attorney general and the Virginia Cannabis Caucus in their work reforming marijuana laws for a safer Commonwealth.”
While Northam hasn’t voiced support for recreational legalization, Herring said last week that Wednesday’s summit is one resource that will help the state move toward comprehensive reform.
“Criminalizing marijuana possession is not working.” Attorney General @MarkHerringVA said he will host a #cannabis summit to advance decriminalization in Virginia. #CheddarLive pic.twitter.com/ecB4BSQo5w
— Cheddar (@cheddar) December 3, 2019
“Based on my conversations, he supports decriminalization,” Herring, who is also running for governor in 2021, said. “Like a lot of people, I think they’d like to get more information about what legalization and what regulated, adult-use would look like.”
A bill to decriminalize marijuana and make possession of up to one ounce punishable by a maximum $50 civil penalty was prefiled in the legislature last month.
This latest legalization bill, introduced by Del. Lee Carter (D), will likely be a heavier lift. It would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers, and it would impose a 10 percent tax, revenue from which would go toward a veterans fund, transportation and local municipalities that allow marijuana businesses to operate.
“While a majority of Virginians agree with Attorney General Herring that marijuana should be legal for responsible use by adults, it may take a bit more work to convince the Virginia General Assembly to send such a bill to the governor’s desk,” Michelle Pedini told Marijuana Moment. “Todays summit is an important, and historic, step toward that goal, and NORML is proud to be a part of it.”
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.