Virginia Governor Ralph Northam Calls for Cannabis Legalization in 2021

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Add Virginia to the list of states that could legalize cannabis in 2021, as Governor Ralph Northam released a forceful statement on Monday in support of adult use cannabis legalization. 

“It’s time to legalize marijuana in Virginia,” Northam said in an announcement. “Our Commonwealth has an opportunity to be the first state in the South to take this step, and we will lead with a focus on equity, public health, and public safety. I look forward to working with the General Assembly to get this right.”

The Northam Administration also announced that it is “working closely with lawmakers to finalize legislation” ahead of the 2021 General Assembly session, which begins in January.  

Northam emphasized that any legalization legislation has to be centered around five “principles,” including social equity, public health, youth protection, alignment with the Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act, and data collection. 

This comes on the heels of Northam’s move to sign cannabis decriminalization legislation in May. Also, Northam’s Marijuana Legalization Workgroup has been meeting for months, and is preparing a report based on those meetings with a wide spectrum of stakeholders. 

A study by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission found that legalization in Virginia could generate more than $300 million in annual tax revenue, and more than 11,000 jobs, once the program is up and running and in its fifth year of operation.  

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring told Cannabis Wire this summer that he has approached adult use legalization primarily from a criminal justice-focused viewpoint, and that this mindset makes the argument “stronger.” 

“If it’s legal, then somebody shouldn’t have that hanging over them for the rest of their lives, for something that is now legal, so that will help build momentum to expunge those charges and convictions,” Herring told Cannabis Wire

“I’m very optimistic and hopeful about where we’re headed. But we have to build on the momentum and not let people think, ‘oh, okay, we’ve decriminalized, there, we’re done.’ That’s just really the first step toward a path to addressing past convictions and getting legalization,” he added. 

Last December, Herring hosted a day-long cannabis summit in Richmond, Virginia. Attendees discussed topics like social equity, law enforcement, and hemp, and policy and regulation experts from states with legal cannabis shared experiences. 

The summit was part of a broader effort to build a criminal justice system that is “more equal for all Virginians” as lawmakers geared up for the 2020 session of the General Assembly. 

“Front and center is badly needed reform of our cannabis laws in Virginia. I don’t believe that Virginia’s current system of criminalizing cannabis is working. It is needlessly creating criminals and burdening Virginians with convictions. The human and social costs of this are enormous,” Herring said, emphasizing that communities of color bear the heaviest burdens when it comes to how cannabis laws have been enforced. 

During the summit, regulators from Colorado and Illinois shared lessons learned and emerging best practices. (The summit happened long before regulators from coast-to-coast formalized their efforts to learn from each other: last week, regulators announced the Cannabis Regulators Association, which aims to find best practices and model policies among a sea of disparate approaches to the legalization of cannabis for medical and adult use.)

“To me, the best path forward is to immediately decriminalize possession of small amounts,” Herring continued, “and start moving toward legal regulated adult use.”

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