Marijuana advocate says decriminalization ‘just changes the penalty,’ won’t fix racial disparity in arrests

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Marijuana decriminalization goes into effect in Virginia starting July 1 and legislation was approved during the 2020 General Assembly session to study legalizing its recreational use, marking a shift in how some state lawmakers view cannabis.

Despite these changes, cannabis policy advocates stress that people should know the difference between decriminalization and legalization. On Wednesday, 8News spoke with one advocate who shared some clarity on what the new law means.

Possession of small amounts of marijuana will be decriminalized on July 1, meaning if you have an ounce or less you can’t be punished with anything more than a $25 fine.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, the development director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said it’s important to understand what is changing.

“This doesn’t make it legal to possess cannabis under state law, it just changes the penalty,” Pedini said.

Pedini said that decriminalization is the step the General Assembly was comfortable taking, but noted that it won’t fix racial disparity in cannabis-related arrests.

“Despite equal usage rates, African Americans are arrested three times more for marijuana possession in Virginia. Decriminalization will reduce arrests by about half,” they told 8News. “What it won’t do is change the disparate rate in which marijuana possession is enforced between blacks and whites.”

In regards to medical cannabis, Pedini said the program that started in 2015 will become legal under the new law.

“Virginia does have a regulated medical cannabis program. It started back in 2015,” Pedini told 8News. “It’s been operating under what’s known as an affirmative defense model, but July 1, participation in the program for patients, for the dispensaries — it becomes all legal under state law.”

Pedini said it is still too early to tell if state lawmakers will legalize adult use of marijuana in 2021, but told 8News that it’s important that Virginia acts swiftly to undo the harms of prohibition.

“Right now the state is conducting legislative studies to look at what the best regulatory model would be for cannabis in the Commonwealth, as well as what the best approach will be for restorative justice as it relates to cannabis prohibition,” they said.

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