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Advocates Say New Marijuana Laws Don’t Go Far Enough

Marijuana dispensary
Possession of marijuana is now decriminalized in Virginia, but advocates say penalties will still disproportionately effect Black Virginians. (Photo: Pexels)

A new law that took effect Wednesday decriminalizes possession of a small amount of marijuana.

But some advocates say it’s time to remove all penalties, due to their disproportionate impact on Black Virginians.

Black residents make up about 20 percent of the state population. But they accounted for almost half of Virginia’s first-time marijuana possession arrests between 2007 and 2016, according to a 2017 study by the State Crime Commission.

A new state law reduces penalties for possession to a $25 civil fine. But it will still show up in court records, which are used by employers running background checks.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William), who is also running for governor, led a push last session to remove all fines and penalties for possession for up to half an ounce.

“If we’re really talking about having a fair and equitable criminal justice system, then we start by legalizing marijuana,” Carroll Foy said.

Carroll Foy’s bill failed earlier this year amid concerns that removing all fines would encourage rapid growth in the drug trade. Still, she plans on introducing it again in an upcoming special session.

Close watchers of the issue expect more traction this summer from a separate effort to end the practice of using the odor of cannabis as probable cause for searching a person’s car.

In the meantime, the legislature’s research arm, JLARC, will study how Virginia might fully legalize marijuana. Unlike Carroll Foy’s bill, their research will include the sale of cannabis for recreational use by dispensaries.

Medical Marijuana

As the debate over recreational marijuana continues, Virginians may be able to purchase medical marijuana by the end of this summer.

Three dispensaries have gotten state approval to begin growing cannabis and are expected to open their doors to customers in the coming months.

Dharma Pharmaceuticals in Bristol is farthest along, having gotten its permits in January. Columbia Care in Portsmouth and Green Leaf Medical in Richmond got their permits in April and May, respectively.

Cultivation takes between 8 and 16 weeks.

They’ll offer cannabis to eligible patients in a variety of forms, including lollipops, capsules, and creams, but not the smokable flowers sold in other states.

Only around 3,100 people have registered for the new cannabis program so far, according to a spokesperson for the Board of Pharmacy, which is managing the program.

The advocacy group Virginia NORML has more information on the program, including instructions on registration, on their website.

*Editor's note: We've added an update on medical marijuana to this story which was left out due to a technical error.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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