Virginia’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, is holding a cannabis summit today to further discussion on reform policies in the state—part of a push from the newly elected Democratic side of the aisle to decriminalize, and eventually legalize, adult-use cannabis in the state.
“There are smarter, better ways to approach cannabis, and for me that starts with decriminalization of simple possession of small amounts, addressing past convictions, and moving toward legal and regulated adult use,” Herring told Cannabis Wire.
And he thinks Virginia will be able to take the first step—decriminalization—in 2020. In the 2019 elections, the Democratic party in Virginia regained control of both the House and Senate for the first time in more than twenty years. A decriminalization bill has already been filed in the Senate by Senator Adam Ebbin, a Democrat and longtime supporter of cannabis law reform.
“Cannabis reform has been bottled up in committees for years under Republican leadership,” Herring said. “Now that Democrats are in the majority and there’ll be new leadership, I’m really optimistic about our chances for getting this passed.”
Ebbin told Cannabis Wire he is unsure of the support the bill will have. However, since the issue of decriminalization was “unanimously supported by Democrats on the Senate Courts of Justice Committee in the 2019 legislative session,” and with Democrats in the majority once again, he is hopeful that “the Senate at large will support it as well.”
Ebbin is also “reviewing the prospects of commissioning a study bill” to analyze the best ways to legalize cannabis for adult use in the state. But while decriminalization is possible next year, legalization is still two to three years away, according to Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML.
“There will be legalization bills filed but, at this point, I don’t see a clear pathway for those bills to succeed,” Pedini told Cannabis Wire. “I think you would see support on both sides of the aisle just like you would see opposition on both sides of the aisle.”
Speaking about the newly elected Democratic majority, Pedini added that there appears to be a “bit of hesitancy” on some members’ part “to appear too progressive.”
Ebbin’s office will not speculate on an exact timeline for cannabis legalization in Virginia, Henry Watkins, Ebbin’s communications director told Cannabis Wire. However, for legalization to be “palatable” to the state, “there will need to be assurances that the process is handled with a focus on equity and that there is a well-structured banking infrastructure securing the process,” Watkins said.
The cannabis summit later today will include several experts from other states: Jim Burack, director of Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division; Ashley Wright, chief of legislative operations with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office; and Bill Sieber, first assistant attorney general and board member of Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.
The chairs of Virginia’s legislative cannabis caucus, Senator Dave Marsden and Delegate Steve Heretick will also be attending the summit.
The goal of the summit is “to give legislators the policy information, the tools they need to put a really good plan forward for Virginia,” Herring said.
Herring, a 2021 gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, first expressed his support for cannabis reform over the summer. “The human and social costs are enormous, in addition to the millions of dollars it costs Virginia taxpayers,” Herring wrote in a June op-ed in the Daily Press. “And the negative consequences of the current approach fall disproportionately on African Americans and people of color.”
Discussions at the summit will be focused on decriminalization, social equity, regulating CBD and hemp products, and legalization pathways.