Virginia’s Approach to Marijuana Needs to Change, Analysts Say

However, legalization doesn't take effect for another three years.

By Arianna Coghill

November 24, 2020

Legalizing marijuana would do more than increase revenue. It would move the state closer to equality.

RICHMOND- People have been talking about legalizing marijuana in Virginia for decades. And now, that possibility is closer than ever. On Nov. 13, Gov. Ralph Northam announced he’s in favor of making the substance legal. The state could even see bills about it in less than two months.

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

If these bills become law, this new, legal weed market could bring in $300 million for Virginia. And at a time when the state’s budget is in total disrepair thanks to COVID-19, this idea looks better than ever.

READ MORE: Legal Weed Could Bring in $300 Million for Virginia. Northam Says He’s Ready for It.

But Virginia’s push to legalize is about more than just bringing in some extra cash. It’s also about righting several historical wrongs and fixing some long-standing issues in the Commonwealth.

“No one has been able to convince me that our criminal policies of marijuana prohibition are anything other than profoundly misguided,” said Josh Bowers, a law professor at the University of Virginia. According to Bowers, legalization is a must if we want to fix several societal problems in this country, specifically in Virginia. Because, he points out, keeping marijuana illegal isn’t working.

With Legalization Comes Equity

When it comes to legalizing marijuana, equity is one of the biggest reasons why it’s necessary. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission proved that Black people are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related charges than white people. However, this doesn’t mean that Black people use marijuana more. The data showed that both races use marijuana at similar rates. Black people are just more likely to get in trouble for it.

One equity measure in talks is “expungements” or eliminating past charges related to marijuana on someone’s criminal record. Right now, under the state’s new laws, employers, landlords and schools can’t see someone’s past marijuana convictions. However, police officers still can. According to the JLARC, expungement would help over 120,000 Virginians, with over half of them being Black.

However, Bowers says that while expungement is a good start, there are so many other ways that the government can help these communities out.

“Part of legalizing responsibly is focusing on the harms that have been previously done by marijuana criminalization,” he said. “[That] means expungement. But that also includes something more ambitious.”

It’s not enough that people have their marijuana charges cleared, he added. They also need to be able to participate in this new market.

Otherwise, the only people benefitting are the same people unaffected by those unfair, old laws. States, like California and Colorado, have programs set up to help those who’re effected by unfair marijuana policing. Projects like the Hood Incubator in Oakland work hard to give Black and Brown communities a leg up in the legal cannabis market.

Some people want to take it a step further. On Monday, Del. Lee J. Carter said that he’s willing to give Black and Indigenous communities the money from legalized marijuana operations.

“Every single penny of tax revenue from legalized cannabis should go to reparations,” said Carter. “That’s a moral commitment that our history demands of us.”

How Will This Affect the Crime Rate?

Despite legalization’s benefits, there still plenty of concern around the issue. What will legalizing marijuana do to the crime rate? Wouldn’t it go up? According to UVA law professor Richard Bonnie, it might be too early to tell. It all depends on how the state chooses to regulate the system.

However, we’re definitely going to see a drop in marijuana arrests. In fact, the JLARC predicts that Virginia will see an 84% decrease.

“It is certain that the number of criminal arrests and prosecutions for both possession and illegal sale will decline,” said Bonnie. “While arrests for driving while under the influence of marijuana are likely to increase.”

And while this seems worrying at first, Bonnie says there’s no need for alarm. Once it’s legal to use marijuana, it’s safe to assume that more people are going to use it. And if more people are using it, it’s likely that more people are going to drive under the influence. It’s a natural increase, not an epidemic of drivers high out of their minds.

“In terms of full legalization, you could reasonably expect that consumption is going to increase, especially under the population of young adults” said Bonnie. “Then, we might see an increase in people driving under the influence. People are people. And the evidence in other states shows one of the factors that they plan on dealing with is a potential increase in driving under the influence.”

Likewise, Northam has plans to prevent people from abusing marijuana. This includes setting the minimum age of use to 21 and banning it from public spaces. It’s really similar to the laws we have about alcohol. There are also already numerous laws already that make it illegal to drive after using marijuana, which the JLARC recommends keeping in place.

The State’s Approach Needs to Change

It’s clear to see that banning marijuana doesn’t stop people from using it. In 2019, there were about 26,000 marijuana-related arrests in Virginia. And while that was a 10% decrease from the previous year, it’s still a far cry from saying people don’t use marijuana. In fact, 57% of all drug-related arrests are linked to marijuana. So clearly, people are still using the substance.

Instead of punishing people, Bowers questioned if it’s time to focus on protecting those who use. Regulating marijuana gives the government better control of how much people are using, when they’re using it and what’s going into the products. But, you can’t regulate it without legalizing it.

“Sometimes a better approach is education, social support and harm reduction,” said Bowers. “With a harm reduction approach, it’s not focused on eliminating the problematic behavior, if the behavior is even problematic in the first place. Instead it’s a matter of focusing on the potential harms and minimizing those harms.” According to Bowers, legalization will help.

“When you legalize marijuana and create a market for it, you’re generating an estimated a quarter billion dollars a year in tax revenue” said Bowers. “That’s money that you can cycle into education and healthcare. And you can better push for responsible use.”

Decriminalization isn’t Enough

This year was a historic time for marijuana legislation in Virginia. Earlier this year, the state made it so possessing marijuana was no longer a felony. Now, it’s more like getting a traffic ticket. Instead of jail time, you have to pay a $50 fine, then you’re free to go. Even Bowers admits that Virginia’s method of decriminalization is more functional than other states.

“I will give Virginia credit where credit is due,” said Bowers. “In the past year, they have adopted a number of decriminalization policies that I think point decriminalization in the right direction. Specifically, they do not allow searches and seizures based solely on the smell of marijuana. Which shows that they care about how it’s policed. It means that they’re treating it as non-criminal in a meaningful way.”

But this begs the question “isn’t decriminalization enough?” Unfortunately, the answer is no. Why? Well, because it doesn’t fully address the problem, Bowers argues. Even if people can’t get a felony for possessing or using marijuana, it doesn’t mean that police officers won’t still target Black people at a higher rate. It only means that they won’t receive criminal charges.

“Frankly, civil enforcement is still a form of enforcement,” said Bowers. “Now, the harm on the backend in terms of penalties being suffered will be less. But they will still be suffering disproportionately.”

Even with decriminalization laws in place, there’s still a risk of police ticketing and searching Black people more than others.

Virginia’s General Assembly will meet again on Jan. 13, 2021.

Arianna Coghill is a content producer with the Dogwood. You can reach her at arianna@couriernewsroom.

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