Virginia Officials Map Out Path to Pot Legalization

(AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia’s Democratic governor released a doorstopper of a marijuana legalization report Monday afternoon, projecting hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tax revenue while stressing the need for social equity in the legal pot market.

“We will advance new laws to make sure that our commonwealth legalizes marijuana the right way. Virginia has studied the experience of other states and this report lays out a path forward that leads with social equity, public health, and public safety,” Governor Ralph Northam said in a statement released alongside the nearly 500-page report, the product of a task force authorized by the Virginia General Assembly earlier this year. 

The exhaustive report was completed after stakeholders met 15 times, digitally due to the coronavirus pandemic, over the last few months. And while the dollar figures are enticing, especially in the wake of the virus’ impact on the state budget, the report emphasizes the importance of the former home of the Confederacy taking steps to address the racial harm prohibition has caused. 

“Fifty percent of Virginia’s prosecutions [for possession of marijuana are] against Black people,” said Michael Carter Jr., coordinator for Virginia State University’s Small Farm Outreach Program, an 11th generation Virginia farmer and a member of the work group that developed Monday’s report. 

Carter works with Black farmers across the state through a program he’s involved in at the historically Black university. While he saw permits readily available for those who sought them during that process, he wants to make sure the same opportunities are available for cannabis this time around.

“I’d like to see that [arrest number] turned around with Black farmers getting 50% of the access,” he said in an interview. “Not exactly a leg up, but a way to deal with the economic inequity.” 

The issue of social equity is one part of the complex puzzle that will be Virginia’s forthcoming marijuana legislation. While other states have used ballot efforts or constitutional amendments to legalize, Virginia will join Illinois as the only states to use legislatures to undo prohibition.

That’s actually a good thing, according to Ngiste Abebe, director of public policy for national medical marijuana company Columbia Care. She said voter-driven efforts are often limited by approved referendum language, and legislatures can do a better job crafting well-thought-out laws which help address a wide range of issues, not just allowing pot to be sold. 

Another member of Northam’s legalization task force, Abebe said she was pleased to hear how frequently decisionmakers discussed the importance of developing an equitable marijuana scheme for the state.

“I don’t think I attended a single work group without mentioning equity at least once,” she said in an interview. 

Abebe often pointed to Illinois, still in its first year of legalization, as a model, but one she hopes Virginia can improve upon. Throughout the task force meetings, she explained social equity is most often implemented through things like community reinvestment funds and criminal record expungement. 

She noted Illinois has over $100 million from pot tax revenue, with $32 million of it ready to be redistributed to communities after just one year. That money, she said, can go to local businesses through grants or be used to fund public education programs similar to campaigns to stop drunk driving.

“You can’t have equity if you’re not trying to reinvest in the areas [that] were impacted by the war on drugs,” she said.

As for expungement, Carter said it was among his top priorities during his time with the work group. A criminal record associated with marijuana possession, he argued, can often lead to the denial of state permits and funding or a bank loan, and ironically it could have the same effect when those with a record seek permits to get involved in the state’s legal pot marketplace.  

“We want those records expunged so it frees them from a lot of different things, to live a life that’s more productive,” the farmer-turned-activist added. 

He’s not alone in his focus on expungement.

“Expungement is critical,” said Delegate Jay Jones, D- Norfolk, a member of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus.

Jones said expunging criminal records is key to addressing a justice system which has more often victimized Black people.

“I’d like that to be the first component of any movement we make,” he added.

Jones and his fellow members of the 100-seat Virginia House of Delegates can bring a more progressive outlook to the critical issues before legislation heads over to the state Senate, whose 40 members often move things closer to the center.  

Senator Jennifer McClellan, D- Richmond, is hopeful social equity will stay a top priority in her chamber. She said even her expungement bill, killed during a recent special session dedicated to the virus and police reform, was still being discussed behind the scenes and will reappear during the upcoming legislative session that starts in January.

“I support legalization if it’s done right and that includes the social equity component,” she said. “If we don’t, then legalization will continue to exacerbate inequities that already exist.” 

The legalization effort’s roots in Virginia trace back to Senator Adam Ebbin, a Democrat who has been advocating for changes to the state’s pot laws, unsuccessfully in the face of GOP leadership, since 2015. 

“It’s exciting to see us move to the point where it’s not a pipe dream but a reality of a bill that can pass,” he said in an interview, looking back on his half-decade effort before acknowledging the importance social equity will have in the final bill.  

“It’s important people who’ve been disadvantaged by the misguided war on marijuana not be penalized,” he added.

Virginia’s General Assembly meets in two months for a short session. Both the House and Senate will need to agree on a legalization bill – or several bills from multiple committees – before the legislation heads to Northam’s desk.

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