Virginia’s lieutenant governor, a candidate in this year’s election for the state’s top job, just endorsed marijuana decriminalization.
“We need to change sentencing laws that disproportionately hurt people of color. One of the best ways to do this is to decriminalize marijuana,” Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, wrote in a blog post on Monday, citing stark racial disparities in cannabis arrests despite similar usage rates between whites and African Americans.
“The Commonwealth spends more than $67 million on marijuana enforcement — money that could be better spent on rehabilitation,” he said. “It’s clear there are still systemic inequalities within our judicial system. There is an emerging bipartisan consensus we need to reform our drug laws as they…do long-term damage to communities of color. Decriminalizing marijuana is not a panacea, but it is a good place to start making progress.”
Northam, a physician, also touted cannabis’s potential to treat a variety of medical conditions:
“As a doctor, I’m becoming increasingly convinced by the data showing potential health benefits of marijuana, such as pain relief, drug-resistant epilepsy, and treatment for PTSD. By decriminalizing it, our researchers can better study the plant so doctors can more effectively prescribe drugs made from it.”
Northam’s Democratic primary opponent, Tom Perriello, a former congressman, did not respond to MassRoots’s requests for comment via email and on Twitter. During the years he served in the U.S. House, there were no floor votes on marijuana issues and he didn’t add his name as a cosponsor of any cannabis bills.
The leading candidate in the Republican primary, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, hasn’t been vocal about the issue, and his campaign didn’t respond to request for comment either.
Virginia is one of two states, along with New Jersey, that will hold a gubernatorial election this year, on November 7. The state’s primaries will be held on June 13.
A 2016 Virginia Commonwealth University poll found that 78 percent of Virginians support decriminalizing cannabis possession. Eight-three percent of Democrats agreed with replacing low-level marijuana arrests with fines, and 71 percent of Republicans were on board. And a clear majority of the state’s residents — 62 percent — support the further outright legalization of marijuana, the survey showed.
Several decriminalization bills have been introduced in the state legislature this year but have so far stalled as lawmakers have put more focus on legislation to remove the loss of drivers’ licenses as a punishment for low-level marijuana offenses and to expand the state’s existing CBD medical cannabis law.
And Senate Republican Majority Leader Tommy Norment requested late last year that the State Crime Commission formally study decriminalization.
Northam, in endorsing the end of criminalization, is likely shoring up support among younger, more progressive Democratic primary voters and embracing a proposal that enjoys clear majority support across party lines. By doing so, he has also made it more likely that Perriello, Gillespie and other candidates will be asked about the issue by mainstream journalists.
The increased discussion about decriminalization could also ramp up pressure on lawmakers to take pending cannabis bills more seriously.
This post was originally published on February 14, 2017, it was updated on March 24, 2017.