Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is getting impatient waiting for the state’s lawmakers to move forward on marijuana legalization. On Saturday, he published an op-ed in Virginia newspaper the Daily Press advising them to “decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, address past convictions and start moving toward legal and regulated adult use.”
Perhaps the intended audience of the editorial is Virginia’s House Republicans, who have effectively blocked most legislation that would open access to cannabis and reduce its related penalties for possession in the state. Though hopes were high at the start of the year, the state assembly declined to pass two different plans to legalize the cultivation and personal use.
Even while many states around the country march forward towards cannabis regulation, many conservative legislators still see the issue as a potential landmine in the upcoming November elections.
In a rare moment of forwarding motion, the Virginia Senate did pass a bill allowing school nurses to administer medicinal cannabis to students in February. During the same week, SB 1157 got the go-ahead, authorizing nurses and doctors to prescribe THC-A and CBD oil and lays the groundwork for future regulations around medicinal cannabis in topical, capsule, lozenge, and suppository form.
Virginia has had a medical marijuana system of sorts in place since 2015 when an affirmative defense law was passed that allowed patients to take the still technically illegal drug with a physician’s recommendation without fear of legal punishment. In 2018, the program was expanded past intractable epilepsy to include any reason deemed necessary by a health practitioner.
Many doctors have steered clear of prescribing marijuana entirely, leaving patients oftentimes confused about where to get their meds.
In his recently published piece, Herring takes on Virginia’s cannabis arrest numbers, which he says have gone up by 115 percent between 2003 and 2017, a time period in which the number of first-time offender convictions also soared. Multiplying the problem, the arrests are vastly biased on a racial level. Herring cites a number from the Virginia Crime Commission that shows that Black Virginians make up 46 percent of first-time offender arrests, yet only comprise 20 percent of the state’s population. They are also more likely to be convicted of said crimes and sentenced to jail time for them.
“We can’t avoid the conversation any longer, especially when our current system continues to saddle Virginians with convictions and even jail time, and black Virginians at a strikingly disproportionate rate,” wrote Herring.
There is little that Herring’s office can do to directly affect ways in which marijuana is handled by the state’s law enforcement, but the op-ed did make it clear that Herring’s staff will be available to “provide assistance and input,” and that they are in talks with officials from states that have already instituted legal marijuana in the hopes of side-stepping problems encountered by the earlier marijuana regulation and decriminalization systems.
Herring also shared his thoughts with attendees at a Richmond Democratic fundraiser, reports a local ABC affiliate.