The governor of Virginia said on Monday that he wants the state to legalize marijuana and will work with lawmakers to pass a reform bill in 2021. His comments come on the same day that a legislative commission tasked with studying the issue issued recommendations to lawmakers on how a legal cannabis market could be structured.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) campaigned on simple decriminalization, a policy he signed into law earlier this year, but until now had never previously taken a stand on broader adult-use legalization.
“We are going to move forward with the legalization of marijuana in Virginia. I support this and I’m committed to doing in the right way,” he said during a briefing, adding that it’s “not going to happen overnight.”
“Marijuana laws have been based originally in discrimination and undoing these harms means things like social equity licenses, access to capital, community reinvestment and sealing or expunging people’s prior records,” Northam said.
That’s consistent with the analysis put forward in a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) on Monday. The panel made recommendations on the policy change from a number of angles—including economic, social equity and public health. Members drew from the experiences of other states that have enacted legalization, as well as existing research into the topic.
Although the panel did not formally recommend whether legislators should pursue legalization, they noted the projected tax revenue the Commonwealth could bring in and possible restorative justice policies that could help repair the damages of the drug war if the state were to enact the reform.
JLARC was tasked with conducting the study and issuing recommendations as part of a resolution approved by the legislature earlier this year.
“If Virginia legalizes marijuana, the General Assembly would need to make several policy choices,” the commission said in its report. “The General Assembly would need to determine legal limits on the amount of marijuana an individual could possess; where marijuana could legally be smoked or consumed; the legal age for marijuana use; and whether to allow individuals to grow their own plants. Legislators would also need to determine whether to adjust existing penalties for illegal distribution and possession above the legal amount.”
The panel made 45 recommendations and also gave lawmakers 29 “policy options” related to legalizing cannabis. They based the recommendations on interviews with more than 100 stakeholders and more than 200 prior studies on the issue.
Here are some of the main findings:
-By legalizing marijuana, the state would see an 84 percent reduction in cannabis-related arrests.
-If the state enacted the reform and taxed marijuana sales at a rate of 25-30 percent, it could bring in $154-308 million in revenue annually five years after implementation.
-The cannabis program could also create upwards of 11,000 jobs by year five.
-Social equity in the industry could be promoted using a variety of tactics. For example, Virginia could use some tax revenue to support reinvestment programs for communities most impacted by the drug war. Legislators could also prevent vertical integration and provide loans for small businesses.
-The commission said their review of studies on legalization in other states shows that more people would consume marijuana, but evidence indicates that youth use would remain the same, if not decline.
-Local jurisdictions should have “substantial authority” over how to regulate, or whether to allow, cannabis facilities. That includes allowing them to set licensing caps on marijuana retailers.
-Members agreed that the industry should be privatized, rather than having the state control it.
-Legislators should wait to set up the basic market infrastructure prior to deciding on whether to allow cannabis delivery services or on-site consumption.
-Allowing home cultivation would provide a low-cost access option for consumers and, if lawmakers provide for it, they should set a two-to-six plant limit per adult.
-JLARC also said that the legislature should establish restrictions on marijuana labeling and advertising to deter youth consumption.
“I’d like to emphasize that we were directed to look at how Virginia could legalize marijuana and create a commercial market,” Mark Gribbin, JLARC’s project manager for this report, said during a presentation on Monday. “We’re not asserting if that should be done.”
Last week, top Virginia lawmakers signaled that legal cannabis could have enough support to be enacted in 2021.
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D) said there is a “good chance” it could happen, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D) put the odds at “slightly better than 50-50.”
Meanwhile, legislation to stop police from searching people or seizing property based solely on the smell of marijuana in Virginia is set to take effect after lawmakers adopted recommended changes from the governor this month.
Also during the recently concluded special session, Northam signed another bill that will allow people issued summonses for cannabis offenses under the state’s new decriminalization law to prepay their civil penalty rather than having show up in court.
Together, when enacted, the two new reforms will build upon the measure to decriminalize cannabis that the governor signed earlier this year during the regular legislative session, which makes it so possession of up to one ounce of marijuana is punishable by a $25 fine with no threat of jail time and no criminal record.
But not all proposed reforms advanced.
Lawmakers were ultimately not able to reach an agreement during the special session on legislation to provide expungements for prior cannabis convictions that had appeared destined for Northam’s desk after passing either chamber in differing forms. The issue died in conference.
A bill to legalize marijuana possession was filed for the special session by a delegate who is running to replace the term-limited Northam as governor in 2021, but it did not advance out of the committee to which it was referred.
During the regular legislative session, the governor and legislators also expanded Virginia’s limited medical cannabis program in addition to enacting the decriminalization law.
Beyond the JLARC study, several executive agencies—including “the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forestry, Finance, Health and Human Resources, and Public Safety and Homeland Security—have formed a working group that is also studying the potential implications of legalization, and their report is due by the end of this month. That action is required under the approved decriminalization bill.