RICHMOND, Va. (WVIR) - Just two weeks ago, Governor Ralph Northam announced he’d begin proposing legislation to legalize recreational marijuana to legalize recreational marijuana use at the beginning of January. Now, with less than a month until then, experts from across the nation joined in on a new Tom Tom Foundation virtual series, called Legalize It, on how to do so with equity and inclusion in mind.
“There are 15 other states that have reformed their laws to legalize the responsible use of cannabis by adults, and in 2021, our commonwealth has the opportunity to be first state in the south to do so,” Northam said at the beginning of the first virtual session in the series.
Governor Northam says legislation should be based on several principles regarding public health and safety, with a specific focus on marijuana’s role in arrests and convictions.
Based on a report by the Joint-Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), the average arrest rate of Black Virginians for marijuana possession was 3.5 times higher than that of white Virginians between 2010 and 2019.
Toi Hutchinson, a cannabis legalization expert in Illinois who joined in on the call, said legalization could address that issue and it’s resounding effects.
“It is one of the first ways, you get introduced, especially young African American boys between 18 and 24, introduced into the criminal justice system. And that has impacts for the rest of their lives for all of these families, for blocks and blocks of people,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said achieving equity goes beyond just the legal side of things. It means using the business of marijuana as social equity reinvestment.
“Equity in this space is about taking communities who have been harmed and giving them what they need to be in a position to be treated equally,” Hutchinson said.
Policy researcher John Hudak, who moderated the virtual session, said that’s why legalization alone isn’t enough.
“Legalization creates an environment in which fixes can happen, but when you look at a lot of the early states, those fixes didn’t happen,” Hudak said.
Both Hudak and Hutchinson said one of the biggest challenges Virginia lawmakers will have when creating this legislation will be the issue of expungement. They said it’s best to start planning what that will look like before 2021.