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Virginia Black Lawmakers Push To Legalize Marijuana In Special Session This Summer

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A new law decriminalizing possession of marijuana in Virginia is set to go into effect next week, and the state legislature’s black caucus is already pushing colleagues to go further by fully legalizing cannabis in an upcoming special session this summer.

“The Commonwealth is past the point for studies on policing and law enforcement—immediate action must be taken to eliminate law enforcement abuse, prevent and punish racist behaviors, weed out institutional discrimination, and increase accountability at all levels of law enforcement,” the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus (VLBC) said in a list of priorities it released on Wednesday. “The country and the Commonwealth stand at the threshold of substantial and necessary social and political change. As leaders, the next steps are to ensure that there is a bold swing towards greater racial and social justice and change across Virginia.”

In addition to pledging to introduce legislation to legalize marijuana in the upcoming August session, the 23-member caucus also plans to file bills to implement automatic expungement, ban no-knock warrants, require courts to publish racial data on people charged with low-level offenses and enact other sweeping criminal justice reforms.

“And the work does not stop here. In the coming weeks, VLBC members will be hosting events to engage community members to receive feedback and input on the agenda leading up to the Special Session,” the group said. “The caucus will continue to work with the community to ensure the voices of the people are heard, continue to incorporate community input, and continue to work with the community to pursue these goals. The VLBC understands this evolving list as a part of the work needed to ensure that Black lives truly matter in our Commonwealth.”

The state is already undertaking two studies on broader marijuana legalization—one due to a provision in the decriminalization bill that lawmakers passed this session and another as a result of a separate resolution that was enacted—with the results of both due before the end of the year.

But that’s not stopping the black caucus and other lawmakers from pushing an end to prohibition sooner.

Decriminalization’s lead sponsor, Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), who is not part of the black caucus, said earlier this month that he also wants the commonwealth to take the next step to legalize cannabis during the special session.

“It is time for action to reform Virginia’s policing practices and continue the crucial work of deconstructing systemic racism,” he said. “We can’t wait until January to pass meaningful reforms.”

Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who campaigned on and signed decriminalization into law, has not yet backed broader legalization.

“Governor Northam is proud to stand with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus in their push for systemic criminal justice and police reform, and looks forward to reviewing specific legislation,” a spokesperson for the governor told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in response to the new list of proposals.

Earlier this month, Northam held up the recently enacted modest cannabis reform as an example of how the state is addressing racial injustices that are driving mass protests of police violence against black Americans.

“Removing marijuana as a policing tool—one that disproportionately impacts Black Virginians—is an immediate step the Virginia legislature can and should take,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, NORML’s development director who also serves as the executive director of the state affiliate Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Virginia legislative caucuses, municipalities, organizations and elected officials alike should follow VLBC’s lead and promptly call for legalizing and regulating the responsible possession and use of cannabis by adults.”

State Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who is running to replace the term-limited governor in 2021, has endorsed legalizing cannabis and hosted a summit last year to build support for the policy change.

It remains to be seen if legislative leaders will go along with the black caucus’s push to legalize marijuana in August or if the idea will have to wait until after the results of the state studies are in.

For now, as of July 1, possessing up to one ounce of cannabis will be punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time and no criminal record.

Georgia Lawmakers Include Marijuana Decriminalization In Policing Reform Bill

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Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

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