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'Legalization Will Happen' Virginia Gov Says on Marijuana

Julio Cortez



Virginia may be poised to become the first state in the south to legalize recreational use of marijuana. On a phone call with reporters Monday, Governor Ralph Northam expressed full support. “Legalization will happen in Virginia,” Northam said. 

Virginia has inched towards relaxing laws around the use of the drug in recent years. Most recently state lawmakers decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, classifying possession as a civil violation subject to a fine -- much like a speeding ticket. Virginia has also legalized medical marijuana under strict regulations.

But the commonwealth has yet to take the final step: legalizing commercial recreational use akin to Colorado and Washington. 

Advocates were hopeful that would have happened during the 2020 legislation session, the first with Democrats fully in control. Instead, lawmakers pressed pause on efforts, opting to study the issue further. They received the results of that study Monday in a presentation by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, or JLARC. 

The 12-chapter report lays out a host of options for lawmakers on issues from taxation to equity. The report includes 70 recommendations, previewing what is sure to be a difficult and detail-oriented policy-making process. 

Here are some of their findings: 

• Marijuana sales could generate $300 million in tax revenue annually for localities and the state. Generating such revenue and fully establishing a commercial market could take a few years and an $8 to 20 million dollar upfront investment. 

• A commercial market could result in thousands of new, relatively low-paid, jobs. Jobs like bud-tenders and warehouse workers would likely pay below Virginia’s median wage.

• If given the option to prohibit commercial marijuana options locally, officials in southwestern Virginia reported being more likely to do so.

• Black Virginians are 3.5 times more likely than white Virginians to have been arrested and convicted for marijuana offenses, despite the fact that white Virginians report using marijuana at similar rates as Black Virginians. 

Some lawmakers and advocacy groups have signaled a desire to make sure legalization comes hand in hand with equity efforts to address those disparate impacts. That would include expunging marijuana offenses on people’s criminal records. 

The report found that one time expungement could benefit 120,000 Virginians, more than half of whom are Black. Calls for equity also include ensuring the financial gains of legalization will benefit the state’s Black communities. For instance, revenue from marijuana taxes could fund a grant program to support community projects. 

Other questions lawmakers will have to address include whether to allow localities to prohibit marijuana sales, what the age limit should be, how to deal with use of marijuana in public spaces, and how to deal with marijuana-impaired driving. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is Radio IQ's Richmond reporter and bureau chief. She's covered policy and politics from the state capital since 2016. She was a 2020-2021 recipient of the Fulbright Young Journalist Award. She spent a year in Munich, Germany researching memory, justice, and how a society can collectively confront its sins. Her Virginia-based coverage of home healthcare workers, voting rights, and Richmond’s Slave Trail have won national news awards.