Gov. Ralph Northam’s announcement to repeal the prohibition on simple marijuana possession as of July 1, 2021 is the first step toward ending racist marijuana law enforcement. This important change to the legislation recently passed by the General Assembly will allow the Commonwealth to begin addressing the tragic consequences of communities of color being over-policed in the failed War on Drugs. Marijuana laws are more harshly enforced in Black and Brown communities, and we cannot risk more people being caught in the system for acting in ways that will soon be legal.
The ACLU of Virginia, Marijuana Justice, RISE for Youth, and Justice Forward Virginia applaud the governor for understanding that justice delayed is justice denied. We urge the legislature to approve the governor’s amendment, which will legalize possession of less than one ounce and reduce the charge for possession of one ounce to one pound to a civil penalty, effective July 1. The legal market will take time to set up, but this amendment stops Black and Brown Virginians from being needlessly punished in the meantime. This is an historic milestone for racial justice and civil rights, following years of campaigning from advocates and community groups and a strong push by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
While this crucial piece of marijuana legislation is a huge step toward racial justice, youth will continue to be punished more harshly than adults. The possession charges for young people, which remain in the marijuana bill, will feed the school-to-prison pipeline, and be used by courts as a gateway and result in too many Black and Brown youth being placed under probation and surveillance. Instead of punishment, young people should be evaluated for appropriate services that address the root causes of their usage. Failing to address the decriminalization of youth means that the work of legalizing marijuana right is not done. We will continue to advocate for youth justice and racial justice until marijuana legislation truly addresses past wrongs.
Thousands of Virginians made their voices heard on this issue by emailing and calling the governor’s office, sharing their personal experiences, and showing public support for equitable marijuana legislation. When the governor’s amendments are passed by the legislature, the bill will be a turning point toward racial justice in Virginia. Legalizing simple possession of marijuana on July 1 is the culmination of years of advocacy and is a victory that belongs to us all. It is a positive first step, but we must keep in mind that it is by no means perfect. The next step is to review the bill in detail once released to advocates and redouble our efforts for legislation that is completely equitable. We will continue the work of improving this legislation for greater racial and social justice in Virginia.