Virginia: Marijuana Legalization Work Group Report Outlines Recommendations

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s cannabis legalization workgroup has concluded months of meetings with a nearly 500-page report released Monday that lays out what legalization could look like in the state. 

The top recommendations urge law and policymakers to focus on social, racial, and economic equity, robust collection of data, public health and prevention efforts, and alignment with the existing Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act. It also outlines approaches to taxes, banking, licenses, and consumer safety measures. Northam has said that he’s “working closely with lawmakers to finalize legislation” ahead of the 2021 General Assembly session, which begins in January, and that any cannabis legalization efforts would have to map against priorities that he’s highlighted. 

The workgroup, prompted by the state’s legislature, includes high-ranking members of Northam’s administration, Attorney General Mark Herring, the Virginia State Police, public health officials, and representatives from the cannabis industry, like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. 

The report comes on the heels of a study released by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission found that legalization in Virginia could generate more than $300 million in annual tax revenue, and more than 11,000 jobs, once the program matures to its fifth year of operation.  

Top Virginia leaders have been calling for wide-ranging cannabis law reforms in the state since last year. In January, Northam unveiled a criminal justice agenda that included cannabis decriminalization, and in May, the General Assembly passed such legislation. Earlier in November, Northam called for adult use legalization, saying that “it’s time to legalize marijuana in Virginia.” 

Northam added, “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.”

Still, while Virginia appears on a fast-track to legalization, the report on legalization concludes that, “This task would be both challenging and complex, requiring the input of multiple state agencies, stakeholders, and experts. The process to set up a state regulatory program would likely take some time and require adequate resources. While the potential economic opportunities and revenue impacts are promising, they are not guaranteed.”

Last December, Attorney General Mark Herring hosted a summit that he said was part of a broader effort to build a criminal justice system that is “more equal for all Virginians.” Attendees discussed cannabis policy topics like equity, law enforcement, and hemp. 

“Marijuana prohibition historically has been based in discrimination, and criminalization laws have disproportionately harmed minority communities,” Northam said in an announcement about the report released this week. “Legislation should focus on undoing these harms by including initiatives such as social equity license programs, access to capital, community reinvestment, and sealing or expunging records of past marijuana-related convictions.” 

In a Q&A with Cannabis Wire this summer, Herring said that thinking about legalization through a criminal justice mindset makes the argument to legalize “stronger.” 

“If it’s legal, then somebody shouldn’t have that hanging over them for the rest of their lives, for something that is now legal, so that will help build momentum to expunge those charges and convictions,” Herring told Cannabis Wire

“I’m very optimistic and hopeful about where we’re headed. But we have to build on the momentum and not let people think, ‘oh, okay, we’ve decriminalized, there, we’re done.’ That’s just really the first step toward a path to addressing past convictions and getting legalization,” he added. 

State cannabis regulators and policymakers are increasingly turning to each other to discuss legalization lessons learned and best practices. Earlier this month, state cannabis regulators announced the formation of the Cannabis Regulators Association (CANNRA), to “assist” various agencies and jurisdictions, from federal to local, as they mull cannabis policies. 

“Virginia is in a unique position of being able to learn from other states that have already ventured down this policy path and being a leader nationally in setting up a thoughtful, comprehensive adult-use marijuana program,” the report concluded. 

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