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OPINION: Legalize It Right, Virginia 

The call for true racial equity in marijuana legalization starts now.

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This year, Virginia joined the national conversation around marijuana legalization. Yet the state’s journey to decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana has left the door open for racial disparities to continue. With 2020 ending soon, there must be one lesson we take into next year’s session of the Virginia General Assembly: If we do not prioritize equity in the marijuana legalization process, first and foremost, Virginia will join the other states that have failed at including Black and brown communities. African Americans make up less than 4% of ownership in the current legal cannabis market. We cannot settle for incremental change on legalization now and fight for equity later. To do so would be a failure.

As Virginia’s legislature entered its 400th year, there were many promises of racial equity and atonement for past harms inflicted by the Commonwealth. During a moment of historic tension in February 2019, Marijuana Justice was formed by fellow Black organizers and myself. The mission of our work is to repeal marijuana prohibition and actualize social equity in the commercial market to benefit the Virginians most harmed by racist marijuana enforcement.

Shortly after launching, Marijuana Justice formed a coalition with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia for the 2020 General Assembly session to repeal prohibition and recommend an independent study on legalization that would include social equity in the commercial market. In order to push the proposed decriminalization bills to be less harmful, we worked with Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy on a true decriminalization bill that would have removed not only the criminal convictions but all civil penalties, repealing the prohibition of simple possession. Our advocacy helped to downgrade many new crimes proposed in the governor’s decriminalization bill that included higher ticket fees, a new smoking-while-driving law with harsher penalties than open container laws, and re-criminalizing youth unnecessarily.

The governor’s initial decriminalization bill mandated that youth caught with simple possession of marijuana would lose their drivers’ licenses for six months and be drug tested, even though evidence shows that youth use of marijuana does not increase with legalization. Valerie Slater, executive director of Rise for Youth, joined our 2020 coalition to educate legislators on providing necessary services to children rather than increasingly criminalizing them. She and her team helped to amplify stories from families across the state who testified to their teens’ need for transportation, while describing the potential harm from new penalties and labels of juvenile delinquents on their children. While the final decriminalization bill language did not mandate these penalties, legislators gave judges the power to use their discretion in these cases, an approach which has contributed to our current disproportionate youth conviction rate.

Working to defend Black and brown communities from over-policing and harsh sentencing was not our coalition’s only goal. We also endeavored to document a trail of equity for the Commonwealth to follow for legalization. Our call was answered by state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, whose proposed resolution to research legalization, analyze other states, review examples of social equity and address the cost and need for expungements was passed this spring. On Nov. 16, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission’s report was published. It estimates $31 million to $62 million in revenue during the first full year of sales, depending on the state’s chosen tax rate. By the fifth year of sales, commercial marijuana could produce $154 million to $308 million in taxes. The study provides a menu of options to not only include but prioritize social equity for Virginians who are owed this intentional investment.

Let’s be honest. Virginia continues to legislate unfair outcomes for Black and brown Virginians when it comes to marijuana laws. Marijuana possession is still illegal and remains a civil penalty. Virginia judges can see civil penalties on your record and hold them against you in future sentencing. This is why expungement of past marijuana convictions must be part of the legalization conversation. From 2010 to 2019, Virginia made between 20,000 and 30,000 arrests each year for marijuana-related offenses, about 90% of which have been for possession of small amounts. Even though the data shows that use of marijuana by Black and white Virginians is around the same, Black Virginians were arrested at 3.4 times the rate as white Virginians and convicted for marijuana possession at a rate 3.9 times higher than whites. Across every locality in the Commonwealth, Black Virginians were disproportionately arrested and slapped with convictions on their records for marijuana possession, which as of July 1, is no longer a criminal offense in Virginia.

Virginia chose to decriminalize marijuana rather than repealing the code of simple possession despite knowing civil penalties will produce high racial disparities in enforcement. We must learn from the mistakes of our past to create a more just future.

Legalizing marijuana in Virginia will not happen the right way unless the process is equitable, transparent and done using a civil rights lens that was severely lacking with our decriminalization legislation. Building our communities’ futures will require prioritizing direct investments, or reparations, and justice in this industry to redress its harmful past.

Chelsea Higgs Wise has a master’s degree in social work and is the co-founder and executive director of Marijuana Justice. Learn more at marijuanajustice.org.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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