Virginia will be the first Southern state to legalize recreational marijuana, as it seeks to promote equity statewide.
The final bill, passed on April 7, 2021, legalizes simple possession up to one ounce of marijuana for persons 21 years of age and older and the cultivation of four marijuana plants per household beginning on July 1, 2021, according to NPR.
Persons under the age of 21 or possessing between one ounce and one pound of marijuana would face a $25 fine. The bill would allow previous convictions of misdemeanor marijuana charges to be automatically expunged, according to NPR.
Andrea Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Richmond, explained the implications of this provision for racial justice efforts in Virginia.
“The race issue has to do with the fact that mass incarceration is encouraged by arrests for possession of marijuana,” Simpson said. “The question is, if marijuana is legalized, will those who are serving prison terms have their records expunged?"
Beyond the criminal justice system, the legislation establishes retail cannabis markets and creates oversight agencies to regulate its sale.
Additionally, the bill introduces the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund, which will receive 30% of the tax revenue from these markets and reinvest in communities that have historically been over-policed and incarcerated because of the criminalization of marijuana, according to the bill's provisions.
The bill's provisions will go into effect at staggered intervals and regulations will be further detailed in next year’s legislative session, according to NPR.
The bill was first introduced in the Senate on Jan. 13, 2021, by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria; Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth; Joseph Morrissey, D-Hopewell City; Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake City; and Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, as well as Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, according to Virginia's Legislative Information System.
The original bill entailed a longer timeline for the legalization process with simple possession becoming legal in 2024. Democratic legislators feared that leaving the decisions about specific regulations for a future legislature could potentially kill the bill if Republicans gained a majority in the House or Senate, according to NPR.
Working in collaboration with members of the legislature, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed several amendments that would speed up the process of legalization and affect penalties for youth violations. Both chambers debated the final stages and passed them with slim margins.
Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Powhatan, voted in support of the bill and attributed the intense discussion in the Senate over the final bill to the social implications of marijuana legalization.
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“There were debates around the concerns that, you know, that traditionally families have had, parents have had about children’s access to marijuana and the implications of that that would mean,” Hashmi said. “There were more social discussions, rather than a focus on criminal justice issues for some members of the party.”
Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of the social advocacy group Marijuana Justice in Virginia, said that the party-line vote observed in the legislature does not reflect public opinion around the state.
“Virginians overwhelmingly support and approve of legalizing marijuana," she said. "Being an advocate, grassroots and within the general assembly, I want folks to remember that the General Assembly is in no way representative of our actual public collective thoughts.
"Without the public support and push, we would not have legalization until 2024.”
The public pressure for legalization rose in 2019, as the Virginia legislature commemorated its 400th year anniversary and advocates noticed that the event was mostly funneling money into archiving white politicians of the past, Higgs Wise said.
At the same time, photographs in a medical school yearbook surfaced that depicted an unidentified man in Blackface and another wearing Ku Klux Klan robes in a section dedicated to Northam.
Racial justice reform groups saw this scandal as an opportunity to hold Democrats accountable and prioritize the issue, Higgs Wise said.
“Many of us racial justice advocates that had seen his disproportionate targeting of Black communities, specifically with energy policy, knew this was really a moment as they talked about the 400 years to say ‘You want reconciliation, you want to really talk about restitution, then we have a lane for you,'" Higgs Wise said.
A year later, Virginia decriminalized simple possession of marijuana.
Although the legislation is an early step in pursuit of racial equity, Hashmi said she thought that it did not resolve the problem of over-policing in minority communities.
“Many localities in Virginia were still stopping and arresting individuals based on simple possession," Hashmi said, "And it's not just a $25 fine. Ultimately, it’s a disruption of individuals’ lives, and it introduces people into the criminal justice system unfairly.”
Although the shortened timeframe for legalization and establishment of retail markets under recent legislation goes further to address issues of racial justice, there are still concerns that the bill’s provisions reinforce the institutions it seeks to dismantle.
The bill creates penalties for youth that form a pipeline to prison and result in Black youth being imprisoned at disproportionate rates, Higgs Wise said.
Moreover, the bill gives law enforcement new tools to police Black mobility through the open-container regulations for vehicles and only allocates 30% of tax revenue towards community reinvestment while continuing to fund law enforcement’s policing of a legal substance, she added.
However, Higgs Wise said that this legislation marked huge progress in the pursuit of racial equity in Virginia. She cited her fellow advocates at Legalize It Right, ACLU Virginia, Rise for Youth and Justice Forward as key partners in promoting legislative reform and ensuring that the public voice was heard.
“This year was the first step in racial justice," Higgs Wise said.
Contact City & State writer Rachel Stall at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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