PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Several state Democrats say marijuana reform is likely now that Democrats control both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in more than two decades.
State Senator Louise Lucas (D), Delegate Cliff Hayes (D) and Delegate Don Scott (D) answered questions on the subject for well over an hour Thursday night at Portsmouth Sheriff’s Training Station on Green Street.
“This year, these bills are gonna pass,” Lucas said to applause.
Democrats have been pushing to at least have marijuana decriminalized in Virginia for several years, but decriminalization bills have failed to reach the floor in the House or Senate, dying in Republican-controlled committee.
Ahead of the the 2020 session, five bills have been proposed dealing with the subject.
Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, making possession a civil infraction with a fine instead of a crime with the possibility of jail time.
Illinois just recently joined 10 other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing marijuana for recreational use, although it’s still considered illegal at the federal level.
Polling shows a majority of Virginians are in favor of relaxing the commonwealth’s laws on weed.
A 2018 Christopher Newport University poll showed 76 percent of Virginians are in favor of decriminalizing marijuana, and another from the University of Mary Washington found 61 percent approve of legalizing it.
“Now, don’t get all excited because people want to legalize. You need to ask why,” Scott said. “There is a money incentive, follow the money.”
Scott says, while he isn’t against full legalization, he would have to make sure the profits of such a move benefit the black community that has beared the brunt for many years.
“I want to do this where we also share in the upsides, we got to be really really smart,” Scott said.
Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatric doctor, has voiced his support for decriminalization, and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has made decriminalization one of his top priorities.
Recent data show marijuana arrests are at their highest level in 20 years, and Herring says enforcement is expensive, overwhelms the state’s judicial system and disproportionately affects people of color, particularly young black men.
Del. Steve Heretick (D-Portsmouth), who’s proposed both decriminalization and legalization bills in the past, believes decriminalization will likely happen in 2020 and legalization for recreational use could happen in the next five years.
His legalization bill from 2019 proposed taxing marijuana sales at 15 percent, with two thirds of the revenue going to the state’s general fund and the rest going to public education.
Heretick was not listed as one of the participants in Thursday night’s panel.
In 2018, Portsmouth was selected to be the site of one of only five medical marijuana dispensaries statewide.