BRISTOL, Va. (WHJL) – Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring Monday announced their support to legalize marijuana in the Commonwealth, the same day a legislative watchdog group released a study proving its benefits.
“It’s time to legalize marijuana in Virginia,” Gov. Northam said in a press release. “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.”
The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) researched legalizing marijuana in Virginia at the behest of state lawmakers. The study reviewed how Virginia should legalize and
regulate the growth, sale, and possession of marijuana.
The JLARC study found, amongst other observations, that tax collection from marijuana sales could generate up to $300 million annually in revenue, but Wise County Commonwealth Attorney Chuck Slemp said lawmakers first have a lot to consider.
“JLARC suggested that if we go to a legalization of marijuana format, that there’s a lot of different policy considerations that the General Assembly has to consider, like what age is it appropriate, who gets to distribute it, are we going to set up some kind of market place, are we going to tax it, is there going to be some kind of a mechanism to say that if you’re driving while consuming this that it would be subject t a driving under the influence charge? So, there’s a lot of considerations before we just say ‘flip the switch, we’re good to go,'” Slemp told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais. “I support smart marijuana legalization. I think that it has to be coupled with appropriate taxation, regulation, and public safety measures to ensure that we’re not having a bunch of folks driving while intoxicated, that we don’t have individuals abusing their children while high on medication, but with that being said, I think that the steps that the JLARC committee recommended are pretty smart and I’m hopeful that the General Assembly will put in place the safety precautions that JLARC recommended.”
Legalization, according to the JLARC study, would require changes to criminal laws and penalties and would generally reduce arrests and convictions.
Marijuana was decriminalized in Virginia in 2020, with penalties dropping drastically.
“This is a very complicated issue, it’s not as simple as just saying marijuana is legal, marijuana is illegal, and there are distinctions between legalization and decriminalization. Decriminalization, basically, earlier this year, just takes it out of the hands courts, judges, law enforcement, and puts it into a civil penalty type arena, and that’s only for small amounts of marijuana. Larger amounts of marijuana are still punishable by criminal penalties, so someone who is distributing or manufacturing marijuana might face not only misdemeanor but also felony prosecution,” Slemp explained.
Slemp told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais that the legislation is expected to be introduced in the next session of the Virginia General Assembly. If approved, marijuana could be legal in Virginia as soon as July 2021.
“Here in Wise county and across the Commonwealth, marijuana is not the crime that we see a great deal of, at least here in our region, we don’t see a lot of marijuana abuse, marijuana cases, so I don’t think this is going to be very earth-shattering in that sense, I will note, though, that the considerations of the JLARC – the legislative committee that met – are multifaceted. Now, this isn’t as simple as just flip a switch and say ‘hey, it’s legal go out there and do whatever you want to.’ The recommendations of JLARC, I believe, are appropriate,” Slemp said. “I support smart marijuana legalization. I think that it has to be coupled with appropriate taxation, regulation, and public safety measures to ensure that we’re not having a bunch of folks driving while intoxicated, that we don’t have individuals abusing their children while high on medication, but with that being said, I think that the steps that the JLARC committee recommended are pretty smart and I’m hopeful that the General Assembly will put in place the safety precautions that JLARC recommended.”
Dr. Krupa Solanki is a physician who recently moved to Bristol, Virginia from Ohio. He thinks marijuana probably should have been legalized a long time ago.
“It’s 2020, so it’s probably something that should’ve been done a while ago,” Solanki said. “It should probably be treated like alcohol, it should probably be taxed, that money should probably go towards education, but in terms of like side effects compared to cigarettes – they are few and far between, comparatively, so it’s probably something that should’ve been done a long time ago. Obviously, you shouldn’t be driving if you do it, you should treat it like a substance like alcohol but there’s definitely worse things that you could do out there, compared to marijuana.”
Angela Bradley, also a Bristol, Virginia resident, disagreed.
“I think it should be illegal, all but the pill form and only for cancer patients,” Bradley said. “I think that’s part of the reason the world is messed up the way it is today.”
In the key considerations that the JLARC study made for marijuana legalization, the state could allow localities to opt-out of a commercial marijuana market, and current medical marijuana businesses should be allowed to participate.
“Virginia is what’s called a Dillon-Rule State, and unless the General Assembly says that we can regulate or not regulate, then a locality has to follow the same rules, uniformly, across the entire state. If the General Assembly decides to allow localities pick and choose whether they want to allow this here or there, that’s certainly fine, it’s in the General Assembly’s purview, my only concern as a public safety law enforcement official would be that you might have individuals who are confused about what the rules are here in Wise County versus the City of Norton versus the rules in Scott County versus the rules in Virginia Beach, so I think if we’re going to do one thing, we need to make it one-size-fits-all for the entire Commonwealth, at least that’s my opinion. Of course, I’m not a policy-maker. As a prosecutor, my role is to advocate for public safety for my community, and we do that through, not just securing convictions, it’s not about convictions, it’s about trying our best to make sure that our community is safe, that individuals aren’t walking around or driving high and intoxicated, that kids aren’t being abused, and so, that’s where I’m coming from,” Slemp explained.
JLARC offered a full list of recommendations for the General Assembly to consider in the upcoming session.