Virginia Governor Budgets for Cannabis Legalization as Richmond Mayor Calls for Equity

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Cannabis legalization in Virginia is advancing rapidly—two of the latest strategic moves are the Governor’s budget proposal and a letter from the Richmond Mayor. On Dec. 16, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam included funding for legalization in proposed amendments to the 2020–2022 budget, following through on his official statement of support for adult-use legalization. Earlier in 2020, Virginia launched a medicinal cannabis program and decriminalized recreational possession up to an ounce, among other measures.

On the same day as Northam’s budget release, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney released a letter to the governor that urged an equity-oriented approach to legalization. Racial justice is a frequent talking point within discussions of cannabis reform in Virginia, including at last fall’s special legislative session. According to a 2020 Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission report, over the last decade, Black people in Virginia were about 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, even though these groups have similar usage rates. The report also found, “By the fifth year of sales, commercial marijuana could produce $154–$308 million in tax revenue” for the Commonwealth.

To support legalization, Northam’s budget proposal states the Secretary of Finance “may authorize an interest-free treasury loan for the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority to fund startup costs associated with the legalization and governance of adult use marijuana products as enacted by the 2021 General Assembly of Virginia.” It also sets aside $25 million “to support legislation related to expungements of criminal records, including but not limited to automatic expungement of misdemeanor marijuana records.” Members of both the House and Senate introduced separate bills in 2020 that covered the expungement of cannabis offenses, but they have not achieved a bicameral deal.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of the nonprofit Marijuana Justice told The Outlaw Report that expungement is a crucial step in socially-just cannabis legalization.

Automatic record expungement would bring relief [for the] collateral consequences from marijuana convictions to include evictions, public housing, employment practices and financial practices. Day one equity equals expungement,” Higgs Wise said.

Mayor Stoney’s letter also supports expungements, along with a just cannabis industry and reinvestments in Virginia families. He states Virginia must consider two costs as “nonnegotiable” uses of cannabis tax revenue: “the cost of expungement and the cost of equity-centered regulation.” And he calls for new spending for Virginia’s families, “particularly those from communities who have faced historically unjust enforcement and experienced underinvestment.” He says funding universal preschool can support both young children and maternal employment rates.

Similarly, in a statement on his budget, Northam said half of the potential annual cannabis revenue “could pay for two years of quality pre-K to every one of Virginia’s most vulnerable 3- and 4-year-olds—children who deserve the best start in life.” In a tweeted response to Mayor Stoney’s letter, Northam pointed out his budget supports “expungement reforms” and pre-K funding. He wrote, “I am committed to putting equity first as we work to legalize marijuana.”

Virginia’s next legislative session starts Jan. 13, 2020.

Photo by Eli Wilson via Shutterstock

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