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Advocates Call for Racial Equity Amendments to Virginia Cannabis Bills


Virginia’s House and Senate cannabis legalization bills have succeeded in their chambers and advanced to a special session that began Feb. 10. On Feb. 9, 25 advocacy groups led by the Virginia ACLU and Marijuana Justice wrote to Governor Ralph Northam and the legislature asking them to better center racial justice in their legislation. Other co-signers include the Virginia Justice Democrats, Drug Policy Alliance, NAACP Loudoun and Minorities 4 Medical Marijuana.

“Virginia has the incredible opportunity to be the first state in the South to legalize marijuana, but your job will not be complete if you don’t legalize in a way that rights the wrongs of the disparate impact the War on Drugs has had on Black and Brown communities,” the letter states.

The Outlaw Report asked Marty Jewell, board chair for Cannabis Equity Coalition of Virginia (CECVA), which signed on, about his group’s vision for the cannabis market in Virginia in five years. 

“A successful Black- and Brown-led Cannabis Community Reinvestment Board is in place and actively funding [groups] and initiatives in ways to help repair the badly torn human, social and economic fabrics needed to stitch Black and Brown families and communities back together so that such will be fully functional in the future,” he said. 

Jewell described an industry “replete” with Black and Brown businesses, among other goals. 

In the recent letter, CECVA and other advocates make requests relating to legal amounts of pot, legalization dates, social equity licenses and much more. They call for automatic and free expungement of “the criminal records of people convicted of marijuana-related felonies and misdemeanors.” There are bills specifically focused on expungement at play this session, and it is also covered in the legalization legislation.

“Virginia does not deserve to further extract resources from the same people who have been the targets of the Commonwealth’s fake war on weed. Expungements must be free, automatic, far-reaching and happen now,” Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, told Outlaw Report

Both she and Ashna Khanna, ACLU VA legislative director, discussed the collateral consequences of the War on Drugs, including arrests and convictions that detract from housing and employment access, and time with loved ones: “These consequences have had long-term negative effects, primarily in the Black community. As the government created this burden, it’s only fair that they correct it through the automatic, free expungement of records,” Khanna said. 

And the advocates ask courts to treat minors with cannabis as “children in need of services” instead of juvenile delinquents. Valerie Slater, executive director of RISE for Youth, a signatory, said a child trying to deal with life issues through “risk-taking behavior” like using cannabis, “is the definition of a child in need of services.” She said the child should receive evaluation “and appropriate services should be put in place to support that youth’s learning to cope with underlying causes in appropriate ways.”

Advocates also ask for half of licenses to be set aside for social equity applicants (the current bills do not specify a percentage). They say 70% of marijuana excise tax revenues should feed the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund (the current bills propose 30%). 

The Outlaw Report asked Matt Royer, co-chair of Virginia Justice Democrats, about his organization’s five-year vision for the industry. Among several ideas, he said, “If we want to achieve true social and economic justice, we will need to create a cannabis industry that promotes local Virginia growers, manufacturers and dispensaries so communities of color and rural communities can be successful.”

Royer warned, “We cannot allow for this industry to be turned over and taken advantage of by big tobacco companies like [Altria and Marlboro] so it is crucial that we make a market that can be accessible for operations of all sizes.” 

Altria, based in Henrico, VA, recently registered tolobby on cannabis issues in the Commonwealth.

Illustration by Kathy Wyche

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