Last week during a press briefing, Virginia governor Ralph Northam, who has been instrumental in moving cannabis reform forward in the state, connected cannabis laws to the broader Black Lives Matter movement and the current moment of nationwide protest against police violence and police militarization.
“Through 400 years of American history—starting with the enslavement of Africans, through Jim Crow, massive resistance and now mass incarceration—black oppression has always existed in this country, just in different forms,” Northram said.
Northam explicitly mentioned cannabis and how it has been policed as part of what needs to change, referencing decriminalization.
“We need to right historical inequities in education, health, access to business opportunities,” Northam said. “That work includes expanding Medicaid, putting in place historic funding for new mothers, reforming criminal justice, decriminalizing marijuana, making it easier to vote, ending the holiday celebrating Confederate generals, etc. We’re going to keep working even harder.”
In 2017, when Northam was running for governor, removing criminal penalties for cannabis was a notable part of his platform and in 2019, Northam connected decriminalization to criminal justice reform. The Outlaw Report has spent much of the year exploring Virginia’s significant leaps forward when it comes to cannabis reform while also acknowledging how much more work there is to go. Decriminalization of cannabis possession of one ounce or less goes into effect on July 1, the state’s medicinal cannabis program will finally become a program proper this year too, and the state will begin a serious study into legalization for recreational adult use of cannabis.
It is also important to note in this moment of the mainstreaming of anti-racism, that just last year, Northam was revealed via a 1984 medical school yearbook photo as wearing blackface and standing with someone dressed up as a Klansmen at a party. Northam’s response to this involved a series of partial denials and a bizarre press conference in which he was asked to moonwalk (he declined).
In last week’s speech Northam only mentioned “decriminalization” of cannabis rather than legalization. This past legislative session, Northam attempted to push a study into legalization up an entire year. Virginia’s House and Senate rejected this. The American Civil Liberties Union’s study released in April, “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” focused on how cannabis has continued to be disproportionately policed even amid decriminalization and legalization.
According to the ACLU report, a black person in Virginia is 3.4 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than a white person. Other notable facts: 52% of the drug arrests in Virginia were for cannabis; 51 of Virginia’s 95 counties have a racial disparity rate higher than the national average of 3.6; and two counties in Virginia made the “Top 20 Counties for Marijuana Possession Arrest Rates per 100k people” list (Prince George County and Culpeper County).
One of the report’s central arguments is to note how decriminalization and even legalization alone is not quite enough to account for racial injustice when it comes to cannabis.
“States must legalize marijuana, and do so as a matter of racial justice,” the report said. “This means not only legalizing marijuana with the specific goal of undoing some of the harms of decades of racist criminal legal policies, but pursuing broader reforms in the criminal legal system to ensure that the harms of the war on marijuana do not simply re-materialize in other ways after legalization.”
Photo of Governor Ralph Northam by Eli Wilson/ via Shutterstock