Will Virginia Legalize Marijuana Now That the Democrats Are the Majority?
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Democrats managed to flip the Virginia House and Senate in November’s election, taking control of state government for the first time in more than two decades.
What does that blue map mean for legalizing marijuana?
Attorney General Mark Herring believes that the state is ready to decriminalize and legalize marijuana. He said that past bills have been bottled up by Republican-controlled committees, but now that leadership is changing, there may be a different outcome.
“Now that Democrats are in the majority, I think we’ve got a real opportunity to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and I hope we will take real, concrete steps toward legal and regulated adult use,” he said in an interview. “Polling shows that the vast majority of Virginians support decriminalization and a solid majority support legalization.”
A 2018 Christopher Newport University poll found that 76% of Virginians favored decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. A poll by the University of Mary Washington found 61% of Virginians were in favor and 34% were opposed to legalizing marijuana for adults. That study also found that 72% of Democrats polled favored legalization.
Herring said the current system is ineffective and needlessly creating criminals. He believes that even if people aren’t interested in using marijuana themselves, most can understand the effect that criminalizing the drug is having on youth, specifically young African Americans and other people of color.
Under current Virginia law, possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor charge. People caught with it may face jail time of up to 30 days as well as a $500 fine for their first offense. A second or subsequent conviction results in a Class 1 misdemeanor, which may result in maximum sentence of 12 months and/or a maximum fine of $2,500. The person can also face license suspension.
Selling more than half an ounce is considered a felony. The sale of more than 5 pounds can carry up to 30 years in jail.
From 2010 to 2018, there were almost 200,000 marijuana possession arrests in Virginia, and nearly 39,000 of those were in Hampton Roads, according to Old Dominion University’s 2019 State of the Region report.
“It’s costing us a lot of money that could be better spent,” Herring said. In a June news release he put the figure at $81 million annually spent on the criminal enforcement of marijuana.
Del. Steve Heretick, a Democrat who represents parts of Norfolk and Portsmouth, says that marijuana use is not more prevalent in black communities than in white communities, but black people are more likely to be arrested for it.
ODU’s report put numbers to that disparity: In 2018, the Hampton Roads region saw 114.3 marijuana possession arrests per 100,000 white residents and 621.0 arrests per 100,000 black residents.
Heretick is presenting a decriminalization bill in the upcoming 2020 legislative session and thinks it has a very good chance of passing. He believes such bills will get a closer look now that there is a Democratic majority, possibly with legalization in the next three to five years.
But they’ll likely encounter some opposition. Dana Schrad, executive director for the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said her organization does not support legalization or decriminalization.
She said that Virginia has not done enough yet to address the issues that could arise. For example, legalization will not eliminate the black market. Legalizing means taxes, which will push some people to continue selling off the books.
Schrad also said her organization is concerned about driving and workplace productivity, about exposing children to marijuana and about it being a social gateway to other, harder drugs.
The state has expanded access to medical marijuana in recent years. Five companies have been granted licenses by the Virginia Board of Pharmacy to operate medical dispensaries. One was due to open in Portsmouth in spring 2019, but has been delayed.
As of Nov. 22, there are 385 practitioners registered with the Board of Pharmacy to issue written certifications for the use of cannabidiol oil and THCA oil, according to spokesperson Christina Buisset.
Sentara Medical Group spokesperson Dale Gauding said that their neurologists are allowed to sign up for the Virginia program to serve patients with intractable seizures.
Others are completely avoiding the program.
“At the current time, federal and state laws regarding marijuana are inconsistent. Therefore, Bon Secours Medical Group physicians are prohibited from recommending or certifying patients for medical marijuana,” said spokesperson Emma Swann in an email. “Additionally, due to this inconsistency, the continuation of marijuana as a therapy is not permitted in Bon Secours inpatient facilities.”
Heretick believes that any myths associated with marijuana will continue to be dispelled the more that it’s studied.
“As society is changing, I think we recognize that, much like the speed limit or the drinking age, marijuana law is something we can and should change,” he said.
Herring, along with the newly formed Cannabis Caucus, will be holding the 2019 Virginia Cannabis Summit this month to discuss cannabis policy ahead of the 2020 legislative session.
“The goal is to better inform decision-makers and policymakers in Virginia and give them the tools they need to put a good plan together for Virginia,” Herring said.
©2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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