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How will marijuana legalization impact Virginia prison populations?

Colorado governor pardons 2,732 people for marijuana convictions under new bipartisan law
Posted at 10:31 PM, Jul 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-01 23:18:05-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- As the use, possession and cultivation of marijuana became legal in Virginia Thursday, experts weighed in on how that could impact Virginia's prison population.

Michael Wade retired as Sheriff of Henrico in 2019 after serving for 20 years. During that time, he said he worked with inmates on a regular basis.

"The belief that there's a bunch of people in jail for possessing marijuana is not true," said Wade.

Wade said most people that were currently locked up with marijuana charges had other charges too.

"Majority of people that had marijuana charges in jail, it was their secondary charge, not their primary charge," Wade said. "Very few people in jail that are charged with just marijuana, and if it is then it’s usually a large amount."

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Wade said he didn't foresee legalization laws unclogging prisons and even worried it could have the opposite effect.

"It could potentially cause more people to go to jail because of the other offenses created around it," Wade said. "Majority of people who commit crimes, commit them because they’re doing drugs."

Jenn Michelle Pedini, the Development Director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said at least in the short term, not much would change for those in jail or prison with marijuana charges.

"The re-sentencing provisions did not take effect this year and they require reenactment by the 2022 General Assembly, so we’re going to hear all of those in the 2022 session, and it will be debated and voted on again."

Pedini, who also serves as the Executive Director for Virginia NORML, said that meant as of Thursday, no one would be getting out of jail because of marijuana legalization.

However, they did expect that legalization would lead to a decrease in marijuana-related arrests.

"According to the crime in Virginia 2020 report, marijuana-related arrests reduced by about 50 percent and that’s what we expect to see under decriminalization. Ultimately, it’s legalization that will most greatly reduce those arrests, and so we’re looking forward to seeing even more improved data in the next year."