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Northam Backs Legalizing Recreational Marijuana

Northam at table with mask listens to speaker on phone call
Gov. Ralph Northam at a press briefing with reporters on Monday. (Jack Mayer/Office of the Governor)

Gov. Ralph Northam threw his weight behind legalizing marijuana sales to adults on Monday and expects the General Assembly to approve a plan early next year.

The announcement marked a policy shift for Northam, who said he had never personally tried cannabis but was responding to changing attitudes. Voters in conservative-leaning states like South Dakota and Montana approve recreational use of marijuana earlier this month; a 2019 University of Mary Washington poll found 61% of Virginians approved of the idea.

“We want to listen and move with our society,” Northam said. “And as we move, we want to do it responsibly and we want to get it right.”

Northam signed a bill decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana earlier this year, but that legislation included a $25 civil penalty for violators and did not authorize the sale of cannabis.

Northam made his announcement on the heels of a state report exploring how Virginia might best legalize adult recreational marijuana sales based on the experience of other states. 

The study from the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission, the legislature’s research arm, estimated an 18-24 month long process to get a program up and running and a potential state and local tax windfall of $184-$308 million annually after five years. The industry would eventually create 11,000 jobs, most of them paying below the median wage.

The study also found Black Virginians were more than three times as likely as whites to be arrested and convicted for marijuana related crimes from 2010-2019. But researchers wrote that in other states, “relatively few Black individuals have benefited from the establishment of commercial marijuana markets.”

Northam said that addressing that impact should be a focus for legalization legislation.

“I think we can agree marijuana laws have been based originally in discrimination,” the governor said. “Undoing the harms means things like social equity licenses, access to capital, community reinvestment, and sealing or expunging the records of people's prior records.”

JLARC said automatic expungement of past marijuana possession records would be an especially effective way to address past inequities and improve job prospects for Black Virginians, who accounted for over half of marijuana convictions over the past decade despite making up 19 percent of the population.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have signaled some support for legalizing marijuana, but have not committed to the idea. Northam is waiting until a separate run by his administration releases its own report on November 30 to hash out specifics. It’s not yet clear, for example, whether cannabis cultivators will also be allowed to process and sell it to consumers -- a scenario that JLARC said favors larger, white-owned businesses but would likely result in slightly lower prices.

Representatives for House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) and Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-York City) declined to comment on Northam's announcement.

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