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Where local pols stand on Virginia AG’s call for marijuana legalization

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Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring made waves this past Sunday when he wrote a column in the Daily newspaper saying he supported the decriminalization and eventual legalization of marijuana.

Herring, a Democrat who has announced his intention to run for Governor in 2021, is the most prominent political figure in the state to call for the legalization of recreational marijuana. While both Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) have indicated they support the decriminalization of marijuana — which would eliminate criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of the drug — neither has called for full legalization.

“So what does a more rational, just, and equitable cannabis policy look like in Virginia? It’s a question that will require thought, consideration, and input from a wide range of stakeholders, but the time is right to begin working toward legal and regulated adult use,” Herring wrote.

State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-31), who has sponsored bills in the Virginia General Assembly the past five years to decriminalize marijuana, said he was pleased to hear Herring come out in favor of legalization.

“I know this [issue] is becoming more of a mainstream one in Virginia,” said Ebbin, whose district includes parts of Arlington, Alexandria and the Richmond Highway area. “Having the top law enforcement official come out in favor of legalization … it can only help.”

Under current state law, possession of marijuana in Virginia is punishable with up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine for a first offense. Repeat offenses are punishable with up to 12 months in jail and up to a $2,500 fine. A defendant’s driver’s license is also revoked for six months for a conviction or deferred disposition of a drug offense.

Herring noted in his column that other consequences such as loss of employment, student aid, certain public benefits and even custody rights can follow a marijuana conviction. He also said African Americans are prosecuted far more often than other groups under the state’s current laws, something the State Crime Commission found when it studied the issue of marijuana decriminalization in 2017.

“This punitive approach costs Virginia taxpayers an estimated $81 million every year, in addition to the staggering human and social costs,” Herring wrote. “And it cannot be ignored that the burden of the current system falls disproportionately on African Americans and people of color.”

Whether there will actually be any movement on the issue during the legislature’s 2020 session remains to be seen. Ebbin’s decriminalization bills in the past have not advanced very far, but he thinks Herring’s remarks coupled with a Democratic gains in the legislature this fall could lead to progress.

“I’m hopeful that with a change in composition in the General Assembly that we can move it through, with decriminalization as a starting point,” Ebbin said.

Some of Ebbin’s fellow Richmond Highway-area state reps will be allies on the issue should it move forward. State Sen. Scott Surovell (D-36), whose district covers much of the Richmond Highway area, has supported decriminalization in the past and welcomed Herring’s remarks. Surovell said he’s also in favor of legalization, provided it is regulated similar to liquor sales and beneficial to growers in the state.

“I support legalization if we sell it in ABC stores and grow it in a distressed part of the Commonwealth,” Surovell said.

Del. Paul Krizek (D-44), who studied the issue of decriminalization as part of the State Crime Commission in 2016-2017, also favors decriminalization and eventual legalization. He noted that decriminalization is a complex issue, because many states still make simple possession a civil offense, punishable by fines. States where marijuana is decriminalized also have different cutoffs for how much an individual may possess. Maryland, for example, makes it a criminal offense to be in possession of more than 10 grams, while Ohio makes it illegal at 100 grams.

“Frankly, it would be fairer, simpler and provide needed revenue that could be used to help addicts, etc… if we just went ahead and legalized it,” Krizek said.

Not all local legislators are on board with legalization at this point. Del. Mark Sickles (D-43), said that while he favors decriminalization, he’s not yet sold on legalization. He would first like to see more studies about the long-term effects of marijuana.

““I think decriminalization is common sense and we are spending a lot of money chasing around these offenses that are minor in nature,” Sickles said. “I personally am not for legalization at this point.”

Richard Hayden, a Republican from the Mount Vernon area who is challenging Krizek in the upcoming election, does not favor decriminalization, except for medical purposes. He does not believe the benefits will outweigh the costs of enforcing the current laws, and is not sold on the idea that legalization would significantly increase tax revenue.

“There are short and long term health concerns, physical and mental, for those who smoke marijuana even recreationally, especially young people,” Hayden said. “Legalizing marijuana will not take away the illegal trade, which will increase its’ activity to meet increased demand and will do so tax free.”