Governor Ralph Northam Plans to Legalize Cannabis in Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. – Governor Ralph Northam (D) announced he will introduce legislation to legalize adult-use cannabis in Virginia—a goal he plans to accomplish through the legislature. In most states, legalization has been approved by voters at the ballot box. Northam, who decriminalized cannabis possession in May, hopes to finalize the new laws before the end of the 2021 legislative session.

“It’s time to legalize marijuana in Virginia,” Northam said. “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.”

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According to the press release from Northam’s office, any legislation must address the following key areas:

  • Social equity, racial equity, and economic equity. Marijuana prohibition has historically been based in discrimination, and the impact of criminalization laws have disproportionately harmed minority communities as result. A report of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) issued today found that Black Virginians are arrested and convicted for marijuana use at more than three times the rate of White Virginians. Legislation should focus on undoing these harms by including initiatives such as social equity license programs, access to capital, community reinvestment, and sealing or expunging records of past marijuana-related convictions.
  • Public health. Legislation should include substance abuse prevention efforts in schools and communities.
  • Protections for young people. As a pediatrician, Governor Northam will require any legislation include protections for Virginia’s youth, including age limits, mandatory ID checks, and education campaigns.
  • Upholding the Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act. Legislation should be aligned with the Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act prohibiting indoor tobacco use, which Governor Northam championed as a state senator.
  • Data collection. Legislation should ensure Virginia collects appropriate and ongoing information on safety, health, and equity.

Northam has the support of key players on his team including Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.

“Virginia needs to allow legal, regulated adult use of marijuana as a matter of public safety, justice, equity, and economic opportunity,” Herring said. “For too long, the Commonwealth’s approach to cannabis was needlessly and disproportionately saddling Black Virginians and people of color with convictions and [the JLARC] report shows just how important legalizing marijuana is for promoting equity in Virginia.”

NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini, who also serves as executive director for the organization’s Virginia chapter, expressed support for Northam’s plan.

“It comes as no surprise that Governor Northam is ready to support legalizing the responsible use of cannabis by adults,” Pedini said. “Governor Northam has always been thoughtful in his approach to cannabis policy. NORML appreciates that social equity, racial equity, and economic equity are among his primary considerations. We look forward to continuing our work with the administration and the legislature to ‘get this right.’”

Some, including Virginia Senator Mark Peake (R), believe legalizing cannabis could be a step in the wrong direction for Virginia.

“We’re going to have gambling and drugs and oh, look at all the tax revenue we’re getting in by doing immoral things,” Peake said. “We’re losing our moral compass as a Commonwealth.”

A poll conducted last year found 61 percent of Virginia residents support legalized recreational cannabis.

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