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Virginia Governor Renews Marijuana Decriminalization Pledge

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Although he campaigned on the issue last year, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) wasn’t able to convince lawmakers to pass a bill decriminalizing marijuana by the time his first legislative session in office came to an end earlier this month.

But he’s not giving up.

“There are a lot of lives that are ruined by making mistakes and being put in jail,” he said in an interview with WTOP radio on Wednesday. “That’s something that I ran on in 2017, and there were actually some folks on both sides of the aisle that were discussing it but it didn’t happen. But we’ll continue to pursue that as we move forward.”

Last year, Republican Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment made waves by endorsing decriminalization. But when the legislature convened for the 2018 session, he offered a significantly scaled back proposal that merely allowed people charged with first-time marijuana possession offenses to pay to have their records expunged.

That bill passed the Senate in February but died in committee in the House of Delegates.

Even though marijuana possession is still criminalized in the commonwealth, Northam and cannabis law reform supporters were able to enact one key change this year. This month, he signed a bill allowing doctors to recommend cannabidiol (CBD) or THC-A oil for any medical condition, a significant expansion of the state’s existing limited medical cannabis law.

In the new radio interview, Northam credited families with children who could benefit from medical cannabis for convincing lawmakers to pass the legislation by sharing their stories.

“It started with mothers and fathers of children who have intractable epilepsy,” he said.

In 2017, Northam made decriminalization a centerpiece of his election campaign, often describing the issue in stark racial justice terms.

“We need to change sentencing laws that disproportionately hurt people of color. One of the best ways to do this is to decriminalize marijuana,” he wrote in a blog post early last year. “African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia. The Commonwealth spends more than $67 million on marijuana enforcement — money that could be better spent on rehabilitation.”

New Virginia Governor Pledges Marijuana Decriminalization

Northam is also in favor of changing marijuana’s status under federal law.

“I think that it would be great if at the federal level they could change the schedule of marijuana so that we can get more data on it – do more research,” he told Rolling Stone last month. “I remind people all the time that probably over 100 medicines that we use routinely in health care come from plants, so let’s be a little bit more open minded and look at potential uses for medicinal marijuana.”

Virginia’s second-largest city, Norfolk, added marijuana decriminalization to its official statewide legislative agenda in January.

Major Virginia City Calls For Marijuana Decriminalization

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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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