RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/WAVY/AP) — On Monday, Governor Ralph Northam’s office announced his support for the legalization of marijuana.

Northam said he wants a responsible approach that promotes racial equity and preserves youth safety. The Democratic governor said he is going to propose legislation during next year’s legislative session, a process he said could take up to two years. But he added that he’s certain the drug will eventually be legal for personal use. Virginia, as a result, could become the first state in the South to do so.

“Legalizing marijuana will happen in Virginia,” Northam said.

Northam said he’s never tried the drug himself.

Northam said the legislation will address these five principles:

  • Social equity, racial equity and economic equity
  • Public health
  • Protections for youth
  • Upholding the Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act
  • Data collection

Early this year, the General Assembly approved legislation that decriminalized simple possession of marijuana in Virginia, a legislative priority pushed by Democrats and backed by the governor.

As of July 1, anyone caught with no more than an ounce would instead pay a $25 civil penalty and those who have had their cases dismissed in court could have their charges expunged. Under the old law, a first-time offender could serve up to 30 days in jail and be fined $500 for possessing less than half an ounce.

Legislation was also passed for a group to study and release a report on the impact of legalizing pot in Virginia.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) met virtually on Nov. 16 to hear the findings and recommendations from the marijuana legalization report.

The study found that in its first year, the sale of commercial marijuana could generate between $31 million to $62 million in revenue. It also found the industry could eventually create 11,000 new jobs.

The JLARC is recommending the General Assembly determine legal limits on the amount of marijuana an individual could possess; where marijuana could legally be smoked or consumed; the legal age for marijuana use; and whether to allow individuals to grow their own plants.

The report also found that Black Virginians make up a “disproportionately high percentage” of arrests and convictions for marijuana offenses. From 2010-2019, the average arrest rate was 3.5 times higher than the arrest rate for white Virginians and the conviction rate was 3.9 times higher.

Virginia Attorney Mark Herring, who is an advocate of marijuana legalization, issued a statement in response to Gov. Northam’s announcement, and in response to the JLARC report findings.

“This JLARC report just confirms what I have long been saying – Virginia needs to allow legal, regulated adult use of marijuana as a matter of public safety, justice, equity, and economic opportunity. For too long, the Commonwealth’s approach to cannabis was needlessly and disproportionately saddling Black Virginians and people of color with convictions and this report shows just how important legalizing marijuana is for promoting equity in Virginia.”

Attorney General Mark R. Herring

The governor’s announcement comes as marijuana becomes more broadly accepted throughout the United States. In the most recent election, measures to legalize recreational pot passed in progressive New Jersey, moderate Arizona and conservative Montana and South Dakota. Fifteen states have now broadly legalized it, while 36 states allow medical marijuana.

Voters in Mississippi overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana this month.

In a letter sent to Northam earlier this year, The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said decriminalization still allows marijuana charges to be used as “a racist policing tool.”

The fact is marijuana laws overwhelmingly target people in Black and Brown communities… The war on drugs has always been a war on people, particularly on people of color and experts point to policing practices and the racial history behind marijuana prohibition as leading to arrest disparities. Virginia must address and eliminate discriminatory police practices.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, March 26, 2020

The ACLU released a report in 2018 which showed the racial disparities between marijuana arrests from 2010 to 2018. They found Black people were 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for possession than white people.

The ACLU’s study also found that states which decriminalized marijuana had lower racial disparities in possession arrests.

Del. Mike Mullin, (D-Newport News), also released a statement calling for automatic expungement of marijuana convictions following Northam’s announcement.

“It is high time that we legalize marijuana in Virginia, but we must do more than that. That is why I am calling for the automatic expungement of all marijuana convictions. Not a petition-based system, but automatic expungement. This unjust law has harmed our Commonwealth, and disproportionately impacted communities of color. This is only a first step, but I hope it will go a long way towards repairing the damage done to communities across Virginia.”

Del. Mike Mullin

** The Associated Press contributed to this report.