Virginia Attorney Mark Herring is calling on the state to decriminalize and eventually legalize marijuana.
In an op-ed for the Daily Press, Herring wrote that Virginia’s policy of “criminalizing minor marijuana possession is not working,” and is “needlessly creating criminals and burdening Virginians with convictions.”
Herring detailed the enormous human and social costs and also highlighted that current policies disproportionately harm African Americans and people of color.
His op-ed comes at a time when Virginia has seen a surge in arrests for marijuana crimes. From 2003 to 2017, there was a 115% increase in arrests for marijuana possession. There was a similarly dramatic rise in the number of first-time marijuana convictions, from 6,500 in 2008 to 10,000 in 2017.
Herring said that the current approach has devastating human and social costs, and also costs Virginia taxpayers an estimated $81 million every year.
The state’s top prosecutor also put a spotlight on the racial inequities in the existing approach.
“The Virginia Crime Commission found that African Americans comprised 46% of all first offense possession arrests from 2007 to 2016, despite comprising just 20% of Virginia’s population and despite studies consistently showing that marijuana usage rates are comparable between African Americans and white Americans,” Herring wrote.
Herring pointed out that individual Commonwealth’s attorneys have begun to reduce the number of simple marijuana possession cases moving through the courts, but said that ultimately, a statewide policy is necessary.
Herring wrote that any new policy would need to be equitable and just, and should include retroactively pardoning and expunging the records of Virginians whose convictions “would not have occurred under more rational standards.”
Herring’s stances reflect popular opinion in Virginia. Seventy-six percent of Virginians support decriminalization, according to a 2018 poll from Christopher Newport University, and 59% support legalized adult use according to a 2017 poll from Quinnipiac University.
If Virginia were to decriminalize marijuana, it would become the 24th state to do so, and it would be the 12th state to legalize marijuana.