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Virginia’s Decriminalization Didn’t Fix Racial Inequity in Cannabis Policing


Virginia’s legislature cleared both cannabis legalization bills on Feb. 16, with the Senate passing HB 2312, and the House of Delegates approving SB 1406. From here, representatives will hash out a compromise between the two bills, which still differ on several points, including the date of legalization. In 2020, Virginia decriminalized recreational possession up to an ounce of pot and launched a medicinal cannabis program.

“The Virginia General Assembly took a historic step today in righting the wrongs caused by the failed war on drugs. For decades, Black and Brown people have been over-policed and over-incarcerated for minor drug offenses,” Senator Louise Lucas (D – Portsmouth), who co-sponsored the Senate legalization plan, said of the two bills’ latest advancements.

The current House legalization bill would uphold the decriminalization framework until 2024, when the legal sales market is expected to launch. But the Senate bill would legalize simple possession in July 2021. Advocates say this would not be a moment too soon, especially given that recent data shows Virginia’s decriminalization efforts are not correcting the racial disparities of the War on Drugs—a goal Governor Ralph Northam and other Democrats have upheld as central to their cannabis reform efforts in the Commonwealth.

According to a press release from Marijuana Justice, which analyzed data from the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia, Black Virginians made up 52% of all possession charges since decriminalization was implemented in July 2020, even though they only account for 20% of the population of Virginia.

“Virginia has never proven to be competent in enforcing marijuana laws fairly,” Marijuana Justice Executive Director Chelsea Higgs Wise told Outlaw Report. She said the latest arrest numbers are proof of “our own living legacy of systemic harm that must be stopped through legalizing marijuana right.”

These racial imbalances in cannabis policing echo a 2020 Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission report that found, over the last decade, Black people in Virginia were about 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people. And these patterns repeat nationwide. In 2020, ACLU published a national report on cannabis possession arrests and attendant racial disparities from 2010 to 2018. It found, “On average, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates.” 

In a Feb. 9 letter to Governor Northam and the legislature, Marijuana Justice joined ACLU Virginia and 23 other advocates to call for a variety of justice reforms to the cannabis bills, including a July 1 legalization deadline. “We can’t risk more people being caught in the system for acting in ways that will soon be legal,” that letter stated.

“Black Virginians already face systemic discrimination in housing, jobs and education but with equitable legalization, there will be one less barrier to our basic human rights,” Higgs Wise said.

Photo by Seth Michael / Courtesy Shutterstock

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