RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — President Joe Biden announced Thursday that he would be pardoning all prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana, urging governors across the country to do the same with regard to state offenses, leaving questions about what the executive action means for Virginia.
“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said in a statement. “Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”
But in Virginia, local leaders told 8News that the president’s action would have little impact, other than a potential momentum boost toward the legalization of retail sales.
“Anyone who was charged with marijuana possession by a federal law enforcement agency has now been pardoned by the president and is no longer convicted of marijuana possession,” Senator Scott Surovell (D-VA) said Friday. “The category of those cases is very small, relative to marijuana possession in general.”
8News spoke with Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard over the phone Friday, as he is the county’s lead administrator in jail operations. He noted that the pardons would have minimal impacts on individuals currently incarcerated in the federal prison system, but that Biden’s announcement sent a message to leaders across the country.
“The places where you might […] receive a conviction like that would’ve been if they, for example, possessed marijuana on a military base, or maybe if they were going into a government facility like the Pentagon or a CIA facility — I’ve actually represented people on those — or, for example, Wolf Trap,” Sen. Surovell said. “Given Virginia’s robust presence in the federal government and federal facilities in Virginia, Virginia probably has a higher number of people that have those kinds of convictions than other states.”
8News reached out to the Bureau of Prisons and Department of Justice for information on the number of incarcerated individuals who would be affected by President Biden’s pardons, but has yet to receive a response.
“What President Biden did has a lot of potential for people not understanding what he did, and so I think what’s really important is that people need to understand that the president of the United States cannot pardon people for state-level crimes,” Surovell said. “Just because the president has pardoned you doesn’t mean that it’s going to disappear from your criminal history.”
Surovell was behind a bill in the last General Assembly session that would have allowed for criminal resentencing, but it failed to pass. He told 8News on Friday that he’s hopeful for advancement in the conversations surrounding marijuana legalization in the upcoming session in Virginia.
“Last session, I carried legislation that would allow for somebody with a marijuana distribution conviction to seek a resentencing in front of a judge,” Surovell said. “If they had a different kind of conviction, say, for grand larceny or malicious wounding or something like that, and their sentence for that charge got enhanced because they had a prior marijuana conviction, they could apply to the Parole Board to have their sentence re-looked at because they received a greater sentenced because of the prior marijuana conviction.”
In Central Virginia, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin shared the following statement regarding President Biden’s announcement and its impact on the Commonwealth:
The president’s announcement will have very little impact in the state, since the General Assembly first decriminalized and then subsequently legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults over the past few years. Remember, federal law still treats any marijuana possession as a crime, while Virginia law does not. Even prior to that General Assembly legislation, the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office had resolved simple marijuana possession cases through probation and community service, so that individuals did not have drug convictions on their records.
8News also reached out to Chesterfield County Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacey Davenport and Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor. Davenport did not respond. But Taylor noted, similarly to McEachin, that the pardons would not impact state convictions or civil penalties in Virginia.
“But it is certainly something for us to continue talking about as we try to maneuver what’s happening with the adult legalization,” she said.
Communications personnel for Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Todd Gilbert and Attorney General Jason Miyares declined to provide comment to 8News. But a spokesperson for Governor Glenn Youngkin issued the following statement:
The governor’s administration is reviewing President Biden’s executive action.
But Marijuana Justice Executive Director Chelsea Higgs Wise said she hopes conversations about legalization in the Commonwealth will come sooner rather than later.
“It’s a really great gesture forward to continue to see how the federal government can support us on our movement forward,” Wise said. “The announcement of Biden’s pardons does not actually remove anyone from federal prison right now. The White House was able to say that no one is in prison for simple possession of marijuana.”
Wise said the process of legalization in Virginia remains up in the air.
“The legislators have been meeting all summer and discussing how regulations of adult use could look,” she said. “That continues to look at worker protections, also parent rights and ensuring that children are not being separated because of responsible adult use and testing positive for cannabis, and, again, we just really need to make sure that we’re releasing people from prisons.”
Sen. Surovell noted that his Democratic constituents hope to have marijuana legalization laid out by 2024, but that’s not a hard-set date.