RICHMOND, Va. — Could legalizing marijuana in Virginia help address social disparities and inequities? That’s one of the topics the state’s legislative watchdog agency explores in a new report examining how the commonwealth could legalize marijuana.
The Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission report was published shortly before Gov. Ralph Northam announced he will support legislation to legalize marijuana in the Old Dominion.
Virginia decriminalized marijuana possession earlier this year and reduced possession penalties to a $25 civil penalty and no jail time for amounts up to an ounce. In the past, possessing up to half an ounce could lead to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.
Northam said legislation should address five principles including public health and social, racial and economic equity.
The report addresses the establishment of a commercial marijuana industry that protects minors, prosecutes illegal sellers and maintains the state’s medical marijuana program. JLARC director Hal Greer said the study also examines ways legalization could benefit individuals and communities disproportionately impacted by past enforcement of marijuana laws.
“As a first step in that effort, we analyzed data on marijuana arrests across the state in the last decade,” Greer said. “The data revealed a deeply troubling finding that Black individuals are being arrested for marijuana offenses at a much higher rate than others.”
The commission found that from 2010 to 2019 the average arrest rate of Black Virginians for marijuana possession was more than three times higher than that of white residents for the same crime—6.3 per 1,000 Black individuals and 1.8 per white people. This is despite the fact that Black Virginians use marijuana at similar rates as white residents. The conviction rate was also higher for Black individuals with marijuana possession charges.
Over the last decade, Virginia has made about 20,000 to 30,000 arrests each year for marijuana-related offenses. Legalization and decriminalization would reduce marijuana related arrests by 84%, according to JLARC. Civil possession offenses would no longer occur if marijuana was legalized. Arrests would only take place if large amounts were illegally distributed, said Justin Brown, senior associate director at JLARC.
Legalization would eliminate some marijuana laws and create new ones, which would decrease some aspects of police work and increase others, the report said.
Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, a nonprofit pushing for the legalization of marijuana in Virginia, wants laws to allow the expungement of marijuana convictions.
“Our platform is really to be a line of defense between Black communities as we legalize marijuana,” Higgs Wise said.
Higgs Wise said Marijuana Justice seeks to repeal prohibition of marijuana, repair or expunge criminal records of Black Virginians who have been arrested for possession and begin the process of paying reparations to Black communities.
Higgs Wise said she grew up watching family members such as her father suffer the consequences of unjust drug laws. Higgs Wise’s father was in and out of prison for non-violent drug offenses, she said.
“I’ve been a child watching my family just having to struggle with housing, employment,” Higgs Wise said. “My siblings and I are first-generation college students trying to do better for our own legacy and family legacy.”
Proponents of social equity argue that communities most affected by marijuana law enforcement should benefit from the commercial market if it were legalized, the JLARC report said. These communities would likely be composed of mostly Black Virginians since they have been arrested and convicted at the highest rates for marijuana-related offenses, according to Greer.
Social equity initiatives could include community reinvestment programs, providing business assistance programs to individuals in these communities, and promoting entrepreneurship and employment in the industry.
“It looks like legalization is more on the minds of people but I will tell you that folks are looking at marijuana legalization as a way to fill gaps within our budget rather than really working to divert the revenue of cannabis that will be coming back into the communities that truly deserve it,” Higgs Wise said.
Virginia could not legally set aside business licenses for minorities, according to the report.
“The main challenge for preference programs is ensuring that preferences flow to the intended parties,” said Mark Gribbin, JLARC chief legislative analyst. “Race cannot legally be used as a criterion.”
Individuals with a marijuana criminal record could be given preference for business loans, discounts or other assistance, but that may include unintended beneficiaries such as wealthy college students arrested for marijuana possession, the report said. Business assistance programs also can target individuals based on residence, but that includes new residents that have moved to a gentrified area.
Another option is to provide business assistance and support based on an individual’s residence and marijuana criminal record. However, that method excludes people indirectly affected by marijuana law enforcement, such as an “eviction because of marijuana-related conviction of an immediate family member.”
Brown said that some of the ideas in the report such as promoting entrepreneurship among the Black community were based on programs that have been implemented in other states.
“I think what we’ve seen from other states is, you probably need to do more than that so we had some assistance programs that could be paired with that,” Brown said.
Mentorships programs could partner startups with larger businesses so they can share administrative services and work space.
“The idea is to set up some more experienced business owners so they could mentor less experienced business owners and try to help them compete in the marketplace,” Brown said. “We had to have options related to the licensing component as well as the assistance component for those people who get licenses.”
A 2019 report from the Portland City Auditor revealed that nearly 80% of recreational marijuana tax revenue went to public safety, which included money for police and transportation programs. The auditor concluded that the city needed to improve the transparency of tax allocation decisions and results.
“I’m not confident that the General Assembly is truly thinking about a racial equity model, rather than just a way to bring in more revenue and that’s something the people are going to have to bring forward,” Higgs Wise said.
Northam said that in addition to undoing harm caused by racial discrimination, upcoming legislation should also include substance abuse prevention efforts in schools and communities. The governor said that any legislation must include protections for Virginia’s youth, including age limits and mandatory ID checks. Northam also said that legislation should ensure the state collects appropriate and ongoing information on safety, health and equity.
Once the General Assembly begins in January, there may be another formal presentation to legislators who may draft legislation related to legalization.
“Our goal was to basically give them a menu of things they could do, and they could do all of these things or they could do some of them or they could do none of them,” Brown said. “Hopefully we gave them enough information to at least help them understand the various trade-offs there across all those options.”
CNS reporter Ada Romano contributed to this story.