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Marijuana justice advocate on legalization: 'We are finally being heard'

Posted at 6:21 PM, Mar 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-31 21:33:04-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Although some Virginians might disagree with the Commonwealth becoming the first Southern state to legalize recreational use of cannabis, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said a majority back it and called his move to speed up the timeline in doing so a matter of equity.

Northam, speaking with reporters at a COVID-19 vaccination event in Norfolk, made his first public comments after announcing amendments to bills that would legalize simple possession of cannabis by July 1, 2021.

“While not everybody is in favor of moving forward this, the great majority of Virginians are,” Northam said. “People of color and people not of color use marijuana at the same rates, but people of color are three to four times more likely to get arrested and convicted.”

Northam’s amendments mean the legislation will go back to state lawmakers, who must approve them before taking effect later in the summer. If the amended bills do not clear the legislature, the Virginia code would remain unchanged.

Two legalization bills that cleared the General Assembly originally proposed legalizing possession in January 2024, when the state is set to launch the legal marketplace for marijuana sales. Should Northam’s amendments win approval, Virginians could cultivate up to four plants at home for personal use until legal sales begin.

Advocates, like Chelsea Higgs Wise, Director of Virginia Marijuana Justice, said lawmakers were sending the wrong message by approving legalization but continuing enforcement of marijuana laws for several years.

“Black Virginians are continuing to be penalized at four times the rate as white Virginians,” she said.

A state study found Virginians of color are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, a trend the Governor’s Office said continued even after Virginia decriminalized cannabis possession last summer. Currently, people face a $25 fine but not jail time.

Wise said delayed legalization would only continue the harm done to communities of color for generations.

“I think a lot of people realized that it was silly for marijuana to be illegal but didn’t have the entire scope of how it was actually harmful,” she said. “Identifying directly that marijuana is the gateway to the criminal punishment system for Black people, was created to do that very intentionally. It feels that we are finally being heard in a sense.”

Some groups have come out against the plan.

The Family Foundation of Virginia sent out an email to subscribers that said the push to legalize marijuana does not take health or safety into account and is all about tax revenue.

Hopewell Police Chief Kamran Afzal said pushing up the legalization date would make it difficult for his offers to adjust to the change in state law.

Afzal, who worked as a police chief in Colorado a few years ago, told CBS 6 that Virginia should have seen how the effect of decriminalization plays out before taking the next step.

“I know that we’re not going to be ready by July 1st at all,” he said. “The home-grow aspect is very troubling because that’s what Colorado did. It creates a black market; you can’t tell the difference between what’s legally grown and what’s not, and it creates a lot of issues.”

A group of community leaders, headed by former Richmond City Council member Marty Jewell, met outside a medical cannabis facility in South Richmond Wednesday to express support for the amendments but cautious optimism about the promises made in it.

Thirty percent of the revenues produced by the sale of legal marijuana is earmarked for a new “Cannabis Reinvestment Equity Fund,” designed to help communities harmed by marijuana enforcement access the new marketplace. The group called for more revenue to flow to that fund and the promise that community members with knowledge of local impact would serve on the board that would run it.

“We know that people have been injured, and we know there is a time for recovery and a time for uplifting,” Frank Moseley II, with The SEED Initiative, said.

“We see an opportunity and a new industry that can help out people economically. This is a chance for us to build generational wealth,” Jonathan Davis, with Richmond Crusade of Voters, added.

Two Republican Senators were quoted in the Governor’s press release on the amendments to expedite legalization, a sign that the bills likely have the votes to clear the General Assembly. Veto day is set for April 7, when the legislature will take up this and other bills the Governor’s Office amended.