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Virginia Marijuana Decrim Push Gets Boost Ahead Of Governor Election

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In less than a week, Virginia voters will elect a new governor, and polls to date have generally shown that they narrowly favor a candidate who has promised to push for decriminalizing marijuana.

Now, Democrat Ralph Northam’s plan to remove cannabis’s criminal penalties if he is elected just got a bipartisan boost from a high-ranking Republican.

Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment announced this week that he plans to file a bill to decriminalize first-time low-level marijuana possession offenses in the new legislative session starting in January.

The GOP leader’s move comes as the State Crime Commission is wrapping up a study on consequences of Virginia’s marijuana criminalization laws. More than 112,000 people were arrested for first-time marijuana offenses between 2007 to 2016, the commission found.

Norment’s bill, which is still being drafted, would reportedly remove criminal penalties for such first-time cannabis busts and make them punishable by fines, mandatory education and driver’s license suspensions

In the meantime, marijuana has become a relatively prominent issue in the state’s gubernatorial race.

Northam, the Democratic nominee and currently the state’s lieutenant governor, has consistently argued for decriminalization, often framing it 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, for example, earlier this 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.”

Meanwhile, Republican nominee Ed Gillespie doesn’t support decriminalization per se but has proposed changes to allow people to avoid jail for first- and second-time low-level cannabis offenses.

Find out what else Northam and Gillespie have said about marijuana decriminalization and medical cannabis during the gubernatorial campaign:

Marijuana Is A Big Issue In Next Month’s Elections

Majority Leader Norment, who led the push for the state Crime Commission to do the study on decriminalization, predicted that the chances of his bill being enacted next year are 50-50.

While the legislation would need to earn majority support from the state’s Republican-controlled Senate and House of Delegates, a boost from a supportive governor — even if a Democrat — would likely help keep the pressure on lawmakers to take the issue seriously.

Northam is ahead by a few points in the Real Clear Politics average of polls on the race.

The election is on Tuesday.

New Jersey voters will also elect a new governor next week, and marijuana has become a central issue in that campaign as well.

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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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