While the drug will be legalized, those serving time for marijuana convictions will still be in prison.

RICHMOND – When Virginia legalizes marijuana in July, what happens to those in jail? What happens to people serving time due to marijuana convictions? That’s been an argument since the General Assembly signed off on the bill earlier this year. And it’s a question Del. Lee Carter wants answered.

Carter (D – Manassas) wants Governor Ralph Northam to pardon all marijuana-related charges in the Commonwealth. 

“The United States incarcerates more of its people than any other country in history. And also, the overwhelming majority of those people are locked up by state courts, not federal,” Carter said. “[That] means governors can directly reduce the prison population. And they’ve always had this power. They just for political reasons haven’t done it,” said Carter. “It’s within his power right now.”

He’s right on both counts. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the American prison system holds almost 2.3 million people every day. State prisons do account for the majority of the facilities which imprison people in the country. According to the initiative, there were 1,833 state prisons in the country in 2020. That same year, there were only 110 federal prisons.

Candidates Asked to Take The Pledge

In case Northam doesn’t issue pardons before Election Day, Carter has another request. He’s one of five Democratic candidates running for the governor’s seat, one of 13 overall. He’s asking other candidates to pledge to issue mass pardons upon their election. 

“I don’t feel that public safety is best served by locking people away for decades and decades. And we have got to do something about mass incarceration,” Carter said. 

He’s not the only one who feels that way.

Princess Blanding, an independent candidate also running for governor, says she’s joining Carter in the pledge. 

“It doesn’t make sense to see people able to make money off now, to legally make money off the possession or distribution of marijuana when we have people that are still incarcerated,” Blanding said. 

Jennifer Carroll Foy, another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, joined Blanding and Carter in the pledge to pardon all marijuana-related charges in Virginia if she takes over the Commonwealth’s executive office.

“I’ve made boldly using clemency tools a key part of my criminal justice platform, and not just for marijuana-related offenses,” said Foy. “As a public defender, I’ve seen up close how broken the criminal justice system is, including how prosecution of low-level marijuana offenses has contributed to mass incarceration.”

All three candidates agree that pardoning marijuana convictions doesn’t stop with simple possession. 

“We’re about to give out licenses to businesses to set up storefronts to distribute it. So why have people locked behind bars for distributing something that we’re about to open stores to distribute. It doesn’t make any sense,” said Carter. 

Carter Pledges to Reduce Incarceration by 30%

Former governor and current gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe is running on a platform that heavily emphasizes his late-term decision to restore voting rights to 173,000 Virginians and to issue a record number of 227 pardons. 

There were 23,796 people serving sentences in Virginia prisons in March, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections. According to Carter, he wants to break McAuliffe’s record by pardoning at least a third of that population. 

“I’m going to make sure that our prison population goes down by at least thirty percent, even if it means I have to sign thousands of individual pardons,” Carter said. “Thirty percent is my goal just as sort of a marker for people to hold me to. I’m going to try to exceed that.” 

Carter’s plan for pardoning a third of Virginia’s prison population doesn’t only apply to people the Commonwealth is imprisoning for marijuana-related charges. He also supports pardoning broad categories of inmates which include people the Commonwealth incarcerates for crimes they commit before they are 20 years old. Carter also mentioned pardons for people who the state is imprisoning only for drug charges. Under a Carter administration, the would-be governor wants to also consider pardoning people serving disproportionately long sentences.

What About Other Candidates?

Dogwood received a variety of responses from candidates when we asked their position.

Instead of outright pardoning people, McAuliffe says he wants to focus on expunging their records once they’re out of prison. The former governor also wants to ensure people disproportionately impacted by criminalization benefit financially from legalization.  

“I will ensure all past marijuana possession convictions are expunged, that revenues are reinvested back into communities that have been disproportionately impacted, and that Black and Brown Virginians have meaningful ownership opportunities in this new industry,” said McAuliffe. 

Governor Northam did not respond to a request for an interview. The same goes for Democratic candidates for governor Del. Jennifer McClellan and Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax. Also, none of the Republican candidates vying for the nomination this year responded to requests. 

Marijuana Legalization Leaves Out Incarcerated Virginians

This pledge comes two months after Governor Northam signed legislation legalizing possession of marijuana in Virginia starting July 1.

Under the legislation, people ages 21 or older can possess up to an ounce of marijuana. That legislation also includes an expedited process for automatically expunging misdemeanor marijuana-related charges. This process will begin as soon as the automated system to perform the expungements is online, or no later than July 1, 2025. 

However, the bill Northam signed does not include any mention of what happens to current inmates serving sentences for marijuana convictions. Marijuana legalization advocates have criticized the plan for not taking equity concerns like pardons for incarcerated people into consideration. 

Carter and Blanding agree. They say the marijuana legislation stops short of creating equity for people impacted by criminalization. That includes but isn’t limited to people the Commonwealth currently incarcerates for marijuana-related offenses. 

“We have a lot of work to do in that law,” Carter said. “We have a lot of problems that we will begin seeing on July 1, because the work on this bill was unfortunately unnecessarily rushed. [We] could have gotten started on it years ago. [We] didn’t. And we’ve got to do better.”

What Can You Do? 

So what can you do to encourage these candidates and Governor Northam to support pardons for all marijuana-related charges? Contact them! You can find a list of candidates running for governor of Virginia here

To contact Governor Northam, you can call 804-786-2211 or email him here