By Foster McCollam Wright, PLLC
The Commonwealth of Virginia has been a key contributor to American history for over 200 years, and it's about to make history again. Virginia is now the 16th state to legalize recreational marijuana use. This is a landmark piece of legislation that will give 30% of marijuana tax revenue to improve conditions in historically over-policed communities for cannabis-related crimes. Although this bill addresses disparities in penalization for drug crimes, many advocates and lawmakers are skeptical that the legislation will change circumstances in Virginia.
Weed History: Why Should VA Legalize Marijuana?
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published an analysis of marijuana arrest demographics showing that of the 8.2 million national arrests for marijuana between 2001 and 2010, over 88% were for possession, and people of color were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested. National statistics also show that policing in Black communities is more prevalent than in other areas. A Columbia University study also found that race plays a huge part in the degree of police presence in any given neighborhood. So, what does this mean for marijuana in Virginia?
Black and African American people make up nearly 20% of the total population of Virginia. In 2018, out of 46,000 total marijuana possession cases, almost 20,000 arrested were Black or African American. Virginia will be the first southern state to pass legislation of this kind, and many hope this will end disproportionate punishment for drug crimes.
Virginia lawmakers formally addressed decriminalization and legalization in 2020 as part of a special legislative session to address criminal justice reform. The final decision for decriminalization and legalization is based on two fundamental studies: one from Governor Northam's administration and another from the nonpartisan Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee. Essentially, both evaluations reinforce findings in other national and state evaluations of marijuana arrests and possession charges among the Black community and validate the need for change.
What Does the New Law Include?
On February 27, 2021, Virginia passed a law that will legalize recreational marijuana use in the Commonwealth.
The law includes the following details:
- Legalization of cannabis use for people 21 years of age and older
- Regulated marijuana sales starting in 2024
- Legalization of up to one ounce of cannabis
- 30% of marijuana tax revenue will go to a fund aimed at helping marginalized communities
- Underage users in possession of marijuana will face a $25 civil penalty and mandatory treatment
While the bill to legalize marijuana has cleared both legislative chambers, it must be approved by the Governor before it becomes law. Some lawmakers are pressuring the Governor to make legalization effective immediately instead of waiting until 2024. Stay tuned.