PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — One group in Virginia says enough is enough when it comes to the criminal justice system, which has sent a disproportionate number of minorities to jail on marijuana charges.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia is urging lawmakers to abolish the marijuana prohibition effective July 1, 2021. In an opinion piece published late last year — and in a flurry of tweets — attorneys for the group are calling on Virginia lawmakers to remove all penalties for marijuana possession and automatically expunge conviction records for all crimes that no longer are illegal.
However, legislation making its way through the Virginia General Assembly delays the date of legal sales for adults to January 2024, but calls for the automatic expungement of marijuana criminal convictions in July.
While Black and brown Americans have been disproportionately affected by enforcement of marijuana laws, legalization could actually open more doors for minorities in the business world — if rolled out properly.
A national expert who has helped other states with the transition to legalizing marijuana says Virginia can open doors for minorities in the $100-billion industry.
Lewis Koski helped with a similar transition in Colorado that began in 2000.
“We have gone from what has been an illegal industry to a matter of what has become an essential industry in a matter of 10 to 15 years,” said Koski, who is based in Florida.
In 2000, Koski was the director of the Marijuana Enforcement Division in Colorado, as the state legalized the medical use of marijuana, and in 2010 when it legalized recreational use of weed.
With marijuana now legal in some form in most states, he is now the chief operating officer of Metrc, the nation’s leading governance and data tracking system for legal weed. Metrc tags and tracks plants while Koski offers commentary on legalization efforts across the country.
Koski says Virginia can learn from the mistakes made by other states by creating opportunities up front for those who were locked up because of marijuana but locked out of the legal trade.
“Colorado is going back in time and creating an equity application process; Massachusetts has a process similar to that in Illinois,” said Koski.
“There are other states that have earmarked a license or licenses for minority communities. Florida had a very limited number of licenses and one of those was earmarked for ownership that consists of the Black pharmacists association,” said Koski.
Experts say if Virginia legalizes recreational marijuana for adults, eventually, the illegal trade will go up in smoke as dealers can get higher prices in prohibition states.
“They are more likely to become a wholesaler that’s moving outside the legal state and into an illegal state,” he said, adding that legalization shines a bright light on all marijuana sales.
“The product has to be better in the regulated market; it has to be tested, it has to be safer, also priced competitively with the illegal market,” said Koski.
Koski says lawmakers in Virginia face the challenge of developing a comprehensive regulated framework that is business-friendly and not bogged down with bureaucracy. He adds track-and-trace technology advances will assist the regulated industry in the event of a product recall.
“This puts Virginia at an advantage: Right out of the box [Virginia dispensaries will] have security around the supply chain and they are able to protect public health right out of the box,” said Koski.