Marijuana legalization needs to be equitable, activists say Marijuana legalization needs to be equitable, activists say

RICHMOND – Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced several amendments to marijuana legalization legislation in the Commonwealth Wednesday, including an amendment to legalize marijuana possession this July.

Advocacy groups are praising the governor’s accelerated timeline for legalization, but say that the measures he’s proposing still don’t go far enough towards addressing the harms of criminalization. Their main concerns are about the continued over-policing of Black drivers, and the criminalization of young people.

The bills Northam’s proposing to amend, SB 1406 and HB 2312, passed the General Assembly earlier this year. Under these bills, possession of marijuana would not be legal until 2024.

Northam’s proposed amendments also include an expedited process for expungement and sealing of marijuana-related arrest records, increased funding for law enforcement to enforce an existing prohibition on driving under the influence, and penalties for businesses in the emergent industry.

Funding the Police With Marijuana Money

Under the heading “Public Health,” Northam’s statement Wednesday included a measure that “funds training to help law enforcement officers recognize and prevent drugged driving.”

Advocates have consistently spoken out against pairing legalization with increased funding for law enforcement agencies.

Bryan Kennedy, a member of Justice Forward Virginia, a group advocating for criminal justice reform in the Commonwealth, says attaching funding for the police to marijuana legalization continues the cycle of inequitable enforcement that activists are fighting against.

“The decision to increase police funding to do something they already do is not good policy. Police officers arrest people who are allegedly driving under the influence of marijuana every day. This, combined with expanding criminal offenses for possession of marijuana, will likely lead to continued racial disparities in enforcement and increased police/citizen interactions due to marijuana.” Kennedy said.

Driving While Black

Driving under the influence of marijuana will remain a crime under state law, even with the new legalization framework.

The enforcement of traffic violations, including driving under the influence, is inequitable in the US and discriminates against Black drivers. According to a report compiled by researchers at Cornell University Law School, Black people are more likely to be stopped and searched while driving than other races. But, those arrests yield no more contraband than random searches.

A report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) shows that in Virginia, Black residents disproportionately receive marijuana-related charges. Of Virginia’s 133 counties and cities, the report found that 88 disproportionately arrested Black residents on marijuana-related charges from 2015-2019.

According to the ACLU, nationwide Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to have marijuana-related offenses.

Criminalizing Young People

Under the amended legislation, commercial sale of marijuana would still not be legal until 2024. However, personal possession of under an ounce would be legal on July 1, 2021. In addition to legalizing possession, households could grow up to four plants for personal use.

Marijuana Justice, a legalization advocacy group, put out a statement praising the governor’s plan to legalize possession of under an ounce of marijuana.

Their statement says “The legal market will take time to set up, but this amendment stops Black and Brown Virginians from being needlessly punished in the meantime.”

However, the group also cautioned that there were major holes in the legislation, even after Northam’s amendments. 

One of their key issues is youth criminalization.

According to the statement by Marijuana Justice, “The possession charges for young people, which remain in the marijuana bill, will feed the school-to-prison pipeline, and be used by courts as a gateway and result in too many Black and Brown youth being placed under probation and surveillance.”

Instead of criminalizing young people, the group is advocating for youths using marijuana to receive evaluations. These evaluations would help experts understand the root cause of a young person’s marijuana use. Then, they can receive treatment that will meet their specific needs.

A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that adult legalization of marijuana use does not lead to a reduction in the criminalization of young people. The study shows arrest rates of youths significantly decreased in states that decriminalized cannabis possession for everyone. However, arrests of young people did not decrease in states that legalized only adult use.

Youth criminalization disproportionately affects minorities, forming part of the “school-to-prison pipeline.”, according to the ACLU.

Expunging and Sealing Marijuana Records

Northam’s amendments also aim to enable state agencies to expunge certain marijuana convictions and seal court records of marijuana-related offenses.

However, the timing of these expungements and records sealing is still unclear. The governor’s announcement says that process will “begin as soon as state agencies are able to do so.” That could take a while, however. Northam says in his statement that this is because reforming expungements requires extensive updates to agency computer systems and processes.

Part of the governor’s proposal would also simplify the criteria for sealing records, according to his statement.

The amendments will also give the Cannabis Control Authority more power to protect workers in the budding industry. The authority is a regulatory body which will oversee the marijuana industry in the Commonwealth.

The governor’s amendments empower the authority to revoke the business license of marijuana companies under certain conditions. Those conditions include interfering with union organizing efforts and failing to pay a prevailing wage. The authority can also revoke business licenses for classifying more than 10% of employees as independent contractors.

Legalization Returns to the General Assembly

The General Assembly will now have an opportunity to consider Northam’s amendments. Under the Constitution of Virginia, they can accept the amendments individually or as a whole. For that, they’ll need a majority vote in both houses. They can also override the governor’s amendments and pass the bill in its original form. To override him, they’ll need a supermajority vote in both houses.

Jakob Cordes is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach him at info@vadogwood.com.