Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam recently announced that he’s planning to introduce legislation legalizing marijuana when the General Assembly meets in January.
“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,” Northam said in a Nov. 17 news release about his support for the move.
“I look forward to working with the General Assembly to get this right.”
Virginia has already legalized the medical use of marijuana. And new legislation that took effect in July decriminalized (meaning sharply reduced the penalties for) simple possession of pot. Now, rather than the jail time and steep fines they used to face, people caught with an ounce or less of the drug just face a $25 fine and no criminal charges.
The path to pot
A study by the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission, released the same day Northam made his announcement, explored how marijuana legalization could impact Virginia and what legal details the state would need to sort out in order to achieve it.
One of its biggest findings was that legalizing pot could land Virginia up to roughly $300 million per year in tax revenue within five years of being implemented. It could also generate anywhere between 11,000 and 18,000 jobs, the report states — although most of those positions would probably be located in urban areas and pay less than the state’s median wage.
The study’s authors also said that legalization could also allow the state to clear people’s criminal records of prior marijuana offenses. More than half of the 120,000 people in Virginia convicted of marijuana offenses over the past decade were Black, according to the study. It said that Black residents are much more likely to be arrested and convicted for marijuana possession than white residents and residents of other racial and ethnic backgrounds.
“Expungement can significantly improve economic opportunities for individuals with prior convictions through improved job prospects and increased access to state and federal assistance programs,” the authors wrote.
But the study also cautioned that lawmakers should think through and address the potential negative impacts of legalizing pot — including more overconsumption and underage consumption of the drug.
And legalization entails a host of questions the state will need to answer, the authors said. Among them: What should the legal age be for recreational marijuana consumption? How much should a person be allowed to have, and where should they be allowed to consume it? Who should get licenses to grow, process, distribute and sell weed? And who should regulate it?
'I’d like to see more details'
Bristol Virginia City Manager Randy Eads said that while he doesn’t oppose legalizing marijuana, he’s not for it at the moment, either — mainly, he said, because of all those open questions.
“I’d like to know more details from not only Gov. Northam but the General Assembly as to how they plan on regulating regular recreational use of marijuana,” Eads said.
Eads said he’s also worried that legalizing recreational pot use could lead to more Virginians showing up to work under the influence of pot. He cited an article he’d read about that in Colorado years ago.
“Businesses [there] were having a very tough time with employees due to the fact that they were testing positive for marijuana,” Eads said. “We all know that THC [or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main active ingredient in pot] can alter someone’s judgment. And as an employer, you do not want someone on the job site that is under the influence of THC.”
He did say he thought legalization would help people with misdemeanors or felonies on their records for simple marijuana possession.
“I’m sure that has impacted them in their job search or their ability to obtain better employment or to obtain employment at all,” Eads said.
Eads said he doubts that legalizing pot would do anything to help with jail overcrowding. In Bristol, Virginia, he estimated that “at least 95% of the time” people wind up in jail with a marijuana charge, they also “have some other charge that precipitated that marijuana charge.”
Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said the new decriminalization law might as well have legalized pot, as far as his work is concerned.
While his office still sees large amounts of marijuana, Andis said, drug testing labs no longer accept test samples of it; determining whether a sample is hemp or marijuana is difficult and ties up time and resources.
Andis said the WCSO is focusing on harder drugs like meth, heroin and cocaine as well as opioids and prescription drugs.
Abingdon Police Chief Jon Holbrook said he would like to see the drafted legislation and the JLARC report before he voices an opinion one way or another.
“[Governor Northam has] put out the broad principles for what he wants to accomplish, but from the point it’s introduced to the point of whether or not it passes the General Assembly, who knows what is going to happen,” Holbrook said.
Corrinne Geller, public relations director for the Virginia State Police, said VSP does not provide comment on pending legislation.
Meanwhile, public support for cannabis legalization has grown across the country in recent years. A 2019 Pew Research Center Survey found that two-thirds of Americans supported legalization, while a 2020 Gallup poll conducted over September and October of this year showed 68% of Americans supporting it.
Recreational marijuana is currently legal in 12 states and Washington D.C. If Virginia passes Northam’s legislation it will join those as well as Montana, South Dakota and New Jersey, which voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults earlier this year.
Eads said that the overwhelming majority of Virginians seem to support making recreational marijuana use legal in their state, and said the same is probably true for Bristol Virginia residents. But he reiterated his own skepticism about jumping on board yet.
“While I understand the desire to legalize marijuana, I do think we have to be very careful about moving forward with that legalization,” he said.