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Virginia Will Be A Leader On Marijuana Legalization In The South, Governor Says

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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on Friday said the state will lead the way on marijuana legalization in the South, pledging to move forward with a cannabis measure in 2021 that he wants to serve as a model for the region.

“There are 15 or so other states that have moved toward legalizing marijuana,” he said Friday on WAMU radio’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show. “Virginia will be the first in the South, but we tend to be leaders, and now that’s what we’re going to do this year. And we’re going to do it the right way.”

Northam campaigned on cannabis decriminalization but had long declined to take a position on broader adult-use legalization. That changed last week, when he called on state lawmakers to pursue legalization in the coming legislative session.

“Marijuana laws have been based originally in discrimination, and undoing those harms means thins like social equity licenses, access to capital, community reinvestment and sealing or expunging people’s prior records,” he said in coming out for the policy change.

Listen to Northam’s new marijuana comments, around 8:10 into the audio below:

In Friday’s interview, Northam revealed more of his thinking on legalization, expanding on his ideas for social equity and desire to keep cannabis away from minors. “We want equity to be part of this,” he said, “and I as a pediatrician certainly want to protect our youth.”

Northam said he’s still undecided on whether to allow residents to grow marijuana at home.

“That’s something we’re looking into. We’re looking at what other states have done” he said. “The bottom line is, if we’re going to do that, we want it to be done safely.”

“Now, you could make the argument or the point that we’re able to brew beer in our home, why not grow marijuana?” the governor continued. “I’ve heard that. I understand that. But it’s something that, again, we want to do this the right way. There’s going to be a lot of people at the table to discuss how we move forward. And that’s certainly a part of the discussion that we will undertake as we move forward with this.”

Nearly every state where cannabis is legal for adults allows residents to grow marijuana for personal use, although recent legalization proposals in both New Jersey and Rhode Island would prohibit home cultivation, at least initially.

Northam already successfully led a measure to decriminalize marijuana possession across the finish line this year. The new law, which took effect in July, makes possession of up to an ounce of cannabis punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time.

He also signed two expansions of that policy that were passed in a special session.

One stipulates that “no law-enforcement officer may lawfully stop, search, or seize any person, place, or thing solely on the basis of the odor of marijuana, and no evidence discovered or obtained as a result of such unlawful search or seizure shall be admissible in any trial, hearing, or other proceeding.”

The other will allow people issued summonses for cannabis offenses under the state’s new decriminalization law to prepay their civil penalty rather than having show up in court.

Full legalization, however, could be a bigger fight. Northam acknowledged earlier this week that the policy change is “not going to happen overnight.”

A report published Monday by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), however, provides plenty of fodder for Northam. While the panel did not make a formal recommendation on whether lawmakers should legalize, it found the change would reduce arrests, raise tax revenue and help repair past drug war damages.

Legalizing marijuana would lead to an 84 percent reduction in cannabis related-arrests, the report said, while also boosting the economy: A state-legal industry would create upwards of 11,000 jobs by year five, JLARC said, and could bring in between about $150 million and $300 million in annual tax revenue if taxed at a rate of 25 to 30 percent.

Top lawmakers in the state, meanwhile, signaled earlier this month that legalization could have enough votes in the Legislature to pass if a bill is introduced in 2021. House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D) said there is a “good chance” it could happen, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D) put the odds at “slightly better than 50–50.”

Beyond the JLARC study, several executive agencies—including the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forestry, Finance, Health and Human Resources, and Public Safety and Homeland Security—have formed a working group to study the potential implications of legalization, an action required under the new decriminalization law.

A report from the group is due by the end of this month.

Teen Marijuana Treatment Admissions Fell Sharply In States That Legalized, Federal Report Shows

Photo courtesy of Ralph Northam

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Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

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