Virginia Lawmaker Reignites Effort To Legalize Cannabis In The State

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There are plenty of reasons for legalization advocates to feel confident about the outlook for 2021 in Virginia. They have support from the sitting governor, and polls showing that voters in the commonwealth are ready to take the step, too. 

Now, they have legislation to make it a reality. The new bill comes via Democrat Steve Heretick, a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates who has put up legalization proposals in the past. While those previous efforts have all fizzled out, there is good reason to believe that this time will be different. 

The most obvious reason, of course, is the dramatic shift in public opinion toward marijuana legalization in the United States—a sea change that has brought an end to prohibition in both blue and red states, alike. Polls show that there is similarly robust support for legalization in Virginia. A 2019 survey from the University of Mary Washington found 61 percent of adults in the commonwealth are in favor of marijuana legalization. 

Emboldened by those relaxed public attitudes, prominent Democratic Virginia lawmakers have likewise embraced legalization in recent years. In 2019, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said he supports bringing an end to prohibition; in his announcement, Herring even pointed to the poll from University of Mary Washington as a reason for Virginia to take the step.

 “Virginians know we can do better. It’s time to move toward legal, regulated adult use,” Herring said at the time.

Steps To Reform In Virginia

Late last year, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced plans to introduce legislation of his own to legalize marijuana.

“It’s time to legalize marijuana in Virginia,” Northam said in his November announcement. “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.”

That announcement came months after Northam signed into law a sweeping criminal justice package that included the decriminalization of marijuana. The bill decriminalized simple possession of pot, instead establishing a $25 civil penalty for the infraction.

“Every Virginian deserves access to a fair and equitable criminal justice system,” Northam said after signing the legislation. “These bills combat mass incarceration, increase support for returning citizens, and ensure that those who have paid their debt to society have a meaningful second chance. I thank the General Assembly for working with us to build a more just and inclusive Commonwealth.”

All of that suggests there is fertile ground for legalization in Virginia—and gives Heretick hope that 2021 will be his breakthrough.

“This bill is built upon the lessons of other states throughout the country which have enacted similar reforms,” Heretick said, as quoted by WAVY. “With the support of Virginia’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, and a growing consensus of bipartisan support from legislators and local leaders around the Commonwealth, and now Virginia Governor Northam and key members of his administration, this is legislation which has now matured for enactment.”

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