Amid 'Cannabis Summit,' Pot Proponents Say Legalization In Virginia May Have To Wait The state's changing political dynamic is opening the door for liberalizing marijuana laws, but advocates say they're mostly looking to decriminalize possession in the coming legislative session.
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NPR logo Amid 'Cannabis Summit,' Pot Proponents Say Legalization In Virginia May Have To Wait

Amid 'Cannabis Summit,' Pot Proponents Say Legalization In Virginia May Have To Wait

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has said he would support legalizing marijuana. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Ahead of the Democratic takeover of the General Assembly, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is convening a "Cannabis Summit" in early December where officials from other states that have eased their marijuana laws will offer insights that could influence any possible changes in the commonwealth — including decriminalization and legalization, both of which Herring has said he supports.

"The summit will consist of four panels of experts from around the country to speak on the following topics related to cannabis policy: decriminalization of marijuana, social equity, regulating CBD & Hemp products, pathways towards legalization through legislative efforts and other topics that will better inform the upcoming legislative work," according to the summit invitation, which will take place Dec. 11 in Richmond.

The summit is another hint of how the Democrats' victory in the November elections could open the floodgates for progressive-leaning bills on issues like gun control, a higher minimum wage and the loosening of the commonwealth's strict drug laws. But even advocates of legalizing marijuana admit that the summit may only be the first step in what could be a years-long debate over broader initiatives like decriminalizing or fully legalizing the drug and its sales.

"We're like the dogs that caught the bus, now we have to learn to drive it. There's a lot of complicated policy issues we have to deal with," said Sen. Dave Marsden (D-Fairfax), co-founder of the General Assembly's new Cannabis Caucus. "I've heard talk there may be a bill about legalization to make that the focal point. I don't know whether the General Assembly is up for that big a lift."

Eleven states across the country have fully legalized marijuana sales for recreational use, while almost three-dozen now have legal medical marijuana programs in place. In the Washington region, Maryland and D.C. have medical marijuana programs, and D.C. has legalized the possession, personal use and cultivation of marijuana — but not the sale.

But Virginia is the northern-most tip of southern states that have taken much smaller steps on marijuana. Since 2015, Virginia has allowed patients to use medical cannabis oils to treat conditions as recommended by a doctor. But it's not technically legal; rather, users of the oils can put forward an affirmative defense to avoid prosecution for possessing the drug. And in 2017, the General Assembly repealed the law requiring a six-month driver's license suspension for anyone caught possessing marijuana.

That same year, the Virginia Crime Commission studied the option of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, but it found that few first-time offenders actually serve jail time for it. Still, the commission also discovered that African Americans were disproportionately targeted in marijuana arrests.

"We're still pretty conservative," Marsden said.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, director of Virginia NORML, a pro-marijuana group, said Herring's support for legalization and the creation of the Cannabis Caucus in the General Assembly could help change that, by offering a "robust and unprecedented exploration of real-world experiences with decriminalization, legalization and regulation in other states."

But they agree with Marsden that these are small steps toward legalization, though they have set her sights on another goal for the upcoming legislative session in Richmond.

"There is a clear pathway to finally advancing decriminalization in the legislature in 2020 given the new majority," they said. "There is robust support for decriminalization on both sides of the aisle, and it's a policy that Virginians support in every demographic. As far as what else might happen, that remains to be seen."

Marsden agrees that decriminalization is worth considering.

"We have to get these people out of our jails, prisons and courts," he said.

Legalization of marijuana sales for recreational use remains on hold in D.C., largely because Congress has prohibited the city from moving forward on it. And in Maryland, a commission created to weigh possible legalization recently said it likely wouldn't have recommendations for the state's General Assembly until the 2021 session. In Virginia, at least public opinion has shifted in favor of legalizing: a University of Mary Washington poll from Sept. 2019 put support at 61%.

For now, Pedini said they're happy to have a high-level Virginia official like Herring convening the summit.

"It's exactly what is needed," they said. "It'll provide that opportunity to put aside a lot of the rhetoric we're hearing now, which is, 'You know what happened in insert-state-here?' and rarely are those retorts followed up with anything. Now we are going to allow legislators that first-hand opportunity to talk to people who are regulating in other states and let them tell them exactly what happens."

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