RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Governor Ralph Northam’s office announced his support for the legalization of marijuana on Monday.

“It’s time to legalize marijuana in Virginia,” Northam said. “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. I look forward to working with the General Assembly to get this right.”

Earlier this year, the General Assembly approved legislation that decriminalized simple possession of marijuana in Virginia, a legislative priority pushed by Democrats and backed by the governor.

As of July 1, anyone caught with no more than an ounce would instead pay a $25 civil penalty and those who have had their cases dismissed in court could have their charges expunged. Under the old law, a first-time offender could serve up to 30 days in jail and be fined $500 for possessing less than half an ounce.

Legislation was also passed for a group to study and release a report on the impact of legalizing pot in Virginia. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission’s report, “Key Considerations for Marijuana Legalization” outlines how Virginia could approach cannabis reform and marijuana legalization.

The report suggests that past marijuana convictions should be expunged and Virginia should make the marijuana industry more equitable. It also states that 11,000 new jobs would be created in Virginia and the industry could generate over $300 million in tax revenue by its fifth year of legalization.

“This JLARC report just confirms what I have long been saying – Virginia needs to allow legal, regulated adult use of marijuana as a matter of public safety, justice, equity, and economic opportunity,” said Attorney General Herring. “For too long, the Commonwealth’s approach to cannabis was needlessly and disproportionately saddling Black Virginians and people of color with convictions and this report shows just how important legalizing marijuana is for promoting equity in Virginia.”

In a letter sent to the governor earlier this year, The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said decriminalization still allows marijuana charges to be used as a “a racist policing tool”

The fact is marijuana laws overwhelmingly target people in Black and Brown communities …The war on drugs has always been a war on people, particularly on people of color and experts point to policing practices and the racial history behind marijuana prohibition as leading to arrest disparities. Virginia must address and eliminate discriminatory police practices.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, March 26, 2020

The ACLU released a report which showed the racial disparities between marijuana arrests from 2010 to 2018. They found Black people were 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for possession than white people.

The ACLU’s study also found that states which decriminalized marijuana had lower racial disparities in possession arrests.

Northam plans to work with lawmakers to ensure legislation legalizing marijuana meets certain criteria. He wants to see social, racial and economic equity all taken into account throughout the process. According to a release from the governor, legislation should include social equity license programs, access to capital, community reinvestment, and sealing or expunging records of past marijuana-related convictions.

In addition to addressing harms done to Black and brown communities, the legislation will aim to add substance abuse prevention programs in schools and communities as well as protections for young people. There will be an age limit to purchase marijuana and mandatory ID checks.

If marijuana use is legalized in Virginia Northam plans to uphold the Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act and prohibit smoking indoors.