Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring says the state will become “a more fair, just, and equal place” now that simple possession of marijuana will be decriminalized.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam signed the decriminalization legislation into law over the weekend.
The new law scraps criminal charges for simple possession of marijuana and creates a $25 civil penalty. It also creates a work group to study the impact of legalization of marijuana and eventually release a report on the matter.
Supporters have argued the measure is needed in part because African Americans are disproportionately charged with drug crimes. A measure to legalize marijuana failed earlier this year.
“Decriminalization is an incredibly important first step, and one that many thought we may never see in Virginia, but we cannot stop until we have legal and regulated adult use,” Herring said in a statement.
Researchers at Old Dominion University’s Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy took a thorough last year look at marijuana in Hampton Roads, including the delicate calculus of changing the law about possession and recreational use of the drug here.
In Hampton Roads, based on reported usage rates, more than 190,000 adults used marijuana in the previous year and almost 104,000 in the previous month, among the highest rates in Virginia.
However, there are issues around changing the law pertaining to possession and usage. The researchers noted African American arrest rates for marijuana possession are three to five times higher than whites in Virginia and Hampton Roads.
They concluded by outlining things Virginia lawmakers should consider before taking up legalization or decriminalization legislation:
- Marijuana is not a cure for the ills of local governments.
- Many of the medicinal claims of marijuana and similarly infused products are unproven, and research will take time.
- Marijuana decriminalization or legalization does not eliminate the black market for marijuana.
- Hampton Roads’ interdependence with the federal government and the military means that many residents have a job that requires a drug test, security clearance or both.
- While marijuana legalization does not appear to increase the rate of use by minors, there is strong evidence that marijuana potency increases with legalization.
- Decriminalization or legalization will create new burdens on law enforcement.
- If a decision is made to undertake a change in the law concerning the drug, fully legalizing recreational marijuana will do more to address inequalities in enforcement than just decriminalizing the drug.