Today with the stroke of Gov. Ralph Northam’s pen, Virginia became the first state in the South and the 16th state in the nation to legalize marijuana. Since the start of this movement, Marijuana Justice, RISE for Youth, and the ACLU of Virginia have advocated for legalizing marijuana in a way that centered racial justice, and in that effort, the bill takes important first steps, including:
- Legalizing simple marijuana possession and home cultivation on July 1, 2021.
- Establishing an independent cannabis authority to regulate the legal market.
- Creating a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund to invest money in communities most harmed by the failed War on Drugs.
- Establishing Equity Licensee Qualifications and a Cannabis Equity Business Loan Fund, both designed to ensure equitable ownership in the newly created marijuana market.
- Allowing the automatic expungement of criminal records of certain marijuana-related offenses including simple possession arrests, charges, and convictions.
But we are deeply disappointed that a day meant to celebrate these historic moves was marred by Marijuana Justice being the only coalition member not invited to the signing ceremony. From the beginning, Marijuana Justice has been instrumental in expanding our coalition’s ability to center the voices of directly impacted people in the policymaking process. One of our key values is to create an inclusive space around marijuana legalization, where many communities have a seat at the table. In defense of that principle, none of us attended the signing. While we hope to continue working with the governor’s office and his administration to create a truly equitable market, today we stand as a coalition.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are vital in creating a legal market that values repair over regulation. Our goal has always been to create a legal market that acknowledges the harm that has been done to Black and Brown communities and proactively takes steps to restore resources and opportunities to impacted people and communities. We are not there yet, and the inclusion of diverse voices every step of the way is more important now than ever.
We stand with Marijuana Justice, and as a coalition, we believe there is still work to be done. What needs to happen to value repair over regulation?
Ensure a racial equity lens in the appointment of the Cannabis Control Authority, Cannabis Public Health Advisory Council, and Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board. Being seated on July 1, this commission has the power to ensure that Virginia legalizes marijuana in a way that repairs the harm of the War on Drugs. A strong board will include business leaders, community activists, educators, civil right organizations, and impacted individuals.
And there’s more to do during the next legislative session:
Decriminalize our youth. The governor’s appeal failed to address decriminalizing our youth. The current law still considers young people under 18 who are caught for simple possession juvenile delinquents, which places them in the criminal legal system and creates criminal records that burden young people applying for jobs, college scholarships, security clearances and loans for years to come. Last year, simple possession on school grounds was the second most common offense for students in Richmond. Under this legislation, the same simple possession on school grounds will now result in youth being charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor. Clearly, we should be helping youth by providing services that address the root causes of their usage, not labeling them as criminals.
Create no new crimes. The current law creates new crimes around smoking in public, transporting marijuana, and passing a joint to a friend in a public place – overly harsh laws that don’t apply to legal substances like cigarettes and alcohol. Legal is legal, and marijuana laws should not be more punitive than laws regarding other legal recreational substances.
Reinvest more tax revenue in prohibition-impacted areas. Lastly, we must repair the harms of disparate enforcement against communities of color by reinvesting at least 70% of tax revenue from retail marijuana sales into the Equity Reinvestment Fund, which will provide scholarships and grants to community-based organizations who know what services are most needed to generate economic stability and upward mobility.
The new laws are a result of years of work by many advocates and lawmakers, so we all should take a moment to celebrate this historic first step. But legalizing marijuana right does not put recreation over restoration, and it doesn’t leave important voices out of the discussion. We will continue to push lawmakers to make the improvements necessary to legalize marijuana right and to seat a Commission that centers those efforts.