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Northam backs effort to legalize recreational use of marijuana in Virginia
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Northam backs effort to legalize recreational use of marijuana in Virginia

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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam

Gov. Ralph Northam threw the weight of his administration behind efforts to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Virginia, citing racial inequities in how laws around the drug are enforced and promising a meticulous regulatory process on the path to making it widely available.

Northam just a year ago appeared reluctant to embark on a legalization process, but on Monday, citing two studies by Virginia government bodies, said a path exists to legalize the drug in a manner that is safe, addresses inequities and attracts revenue to Virginia.

“Legalizing marijuana will happen in Virginia, and as it happens, we want to make sure that we regulate it properly and that we do it the right way,” Northam said during a call with reporters Monday.

If Northam is successful, Virginia could soon join 15 other states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana - the common term for many different varieties of the cannabis plant.

In a written statement, Northam added: “It’s time to legalize marijuana in Virginia. Our Commonwealth has an opportunity to be the first state in the South to take this step, and we will lead with a focus on equity, public health, and public safety. I look forward to working with the General Assembly to get this right.”

Possession of small amounts of marijuana in Virginia no longer carries jail time or a criminal conviction, under legislation that went into effect this summer and that was a product of the Democrat’s control of the legislature and executive mansion.

Under the new law, people found with less than an ounce of marijuana face a $25 civil fine, and people with prior convictions of simple possession below an ounce have had those records sealed, with some exceptions.

Northam administration officials said Monday that they planned to back legislation during the upcoming session of the state legislature to take things further and kickstart the process of legalization.

The tasks before lawmakers include creating a regulated marketplace for the sale of the drug, establishing age limits and purchase limits, reworking how the state enforces impaired driving, and broadening public education on marijuana and substance abuse to protect public health.

“We want to make sure that everything we do going forward is focused on that public health aspect,” said Health Secretary Dan Carey.

At the same time, Northam said Monday that legalization was critical toward bringing racial equity to the state. The legislature’s oversight and research agency on Monday published a report explaining that while white and Black Virginians use marijuana at similar rates, Black Virginians are three times more likely to face arrest.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that roughly 30,000 Virginians are arrested each year on marijuana related offenses, with 90% facing simple possession charges.

“This has become an equity issue and, and our administration has always been focused on equity, but certainly in the last couple of years that has become a greater focus,” Northam said.

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