Changes could be in the works for Virginia's current cannabis laws if state Attorney General Mark Herring (D) gets his way. The state's top lawmaker recently penned an op-ed to support reforming Virginia's marijuana laws.
Virginia hasn't exactly led the pack in progressive cannabis policy over the past few years. Currently, the state doesn't even have a comprehensive medical marijuana program. And getting caught with even small amounts of marijuana comes with pretty serious consequences. Possession of under half an ounce is punishable with a fine of up to $2,500 and jail time of up to a year.
This is something that the state's top law enforcement official would like to see change.
"Virginia's policy of criminalizing minor marijuana possession is not working," AG Herring wrote in a recent op-ed for the Daily Press. "Virginia should decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, address past convictions and start moving toward legal and regulated adult use."
Herring says the state needs to change in order to prevent residents from suffering the lifelong consequences of a cannabis offense.
"Even if a Virginian avoids jail time for marijuana possession, they can still be stuck with a criminal record, lose their job, student aid, certain public benefits including housing assistance, and it can even affect custody rights."
Herring's stance is a welcome change from the status quo. While much of the country has been reforming their outdated cannabis policies, Virginia appears to have been moving in the other direction. Arrests for cannabis possession more than doubled in the past 15 years. In 2003, there were 13,000 arrests for simple possession, but in 2017, that number rose to 28,000. Most of those cases involve people of color, despite the fact that White and Black Americans consume cannabis at roughly the same rate, and the fact that only one fifth of the state's population identifies as Black or African American.
Herring said these are all reasons why Virginia needs to catch up to their neighbors and move towards more equitable cannabis laws.
"That process should begin as soon as possible with decriminalizing simple possession of small amounts of marijuana and taking action to release from jail, pardon and expunge the records of those whose convictions would not have occurred under more rational standards."
Whether or not Herring will be able to push state lawmakers towards more progressive cannabis laws is another question. While both Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Normet (R) have voiced support for cannabis decriminalization in the past, last year the Senate still voted against a decriminalization measure.
Despite this, Herring said he is committed to the issue and has already begun working on a plan for how Virginia might proceed in liberalizing their cannabis laws.
"My team and I want to be sure we can provide assistance and input as Virginia reconsiders its approach, so we are already having conversations with our colleagues in states with more progressive cannabis laws to identify the questions that need to be answered and the pitfalls to be avoided."
Unfortunately, Herring won't be able to do much about the laws on his own, as his job is to enforce them as is, not change them. However, when the state's top law enforcement official says the criminal justice system isn't working in its current form, hopefully people will listen.