How changing marijuana laws across the country are affecting the conversation in Virginia

In January 2017, two bills were proposed in a Virginia Senate Committee that would have made possessing small amounts of marijuana punishable with a civil fine. Neither proposal was accepted.

Norfolk Councilman Paul Riddick said Virginia has always been a conservative state, but he hopes that it will join the national dialogue about legalizing marijuana.

In 2018 study, the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of Americans believe that marijuana should be legalized, a dramatic increase from the 31 percent who were in favor in a 2003 study.

Eight states have passed laws allowing people to grow and use recreational marijuana — Vermont, California, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Alaska, Maine, and Massachusetts. Washington D.C. has also changed its laws. Thirty states allow for the use of marijuana to treat certain medical conditions and illnesses; Virginia allows the use of cannabidiol oil to treat conditions or diseases when the oil is prescribed by a medical professional.

The debate for the decriminalization continues in the state, including those who consider enforcing marijuana laws a waste of resources. Riddick said law enforcement agencies and the judicial system would save time if people caught with small amounts of marijuana — less than an ounce — were ticketed or fined. Riddick has worked for years to decriminalize recreational marijuana.

He represents the city’s fourth ward and says many of his constituents are also in favor.

“Basically, if you look at marijuana, it is, in a lot of minds, a harmless drug,” Riddick said. “So many individuals’ lives are ruined for possessing a small amount of marijuana.”

According to the FBI, in 2016, national arrests for marijuana possession totaled more than violent crimes, such as murder and rape, combined. That same year, 89 percent of people charged with marijuana law violations were arrested for possession only, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. states that if legalized marijuana were taxed at the same rate and proportion that alcohol and cigarettes are revenue would yield $46.7 billion annually.

“With the influence of the government spearheading this, they can control the cost and amount of marijuana dispersed,” said Isaiah Crothers, a student at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Many supporters want small amounts of marijuana legalized because they believe that race plays a part in the arrests and convictions. The believe that people of African descent are disproportionately impacted.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested on marijuana-related offenses than white people.

“I would hope that our different prosecutors and our different police departments would recognize that a half an ounce of marijuana for someone white and a half an ounce of marijuana for someone black is the same thing and they would not be overly aggressive when it comes to arresting blacks,” Riddick said.

Some opponents of legalizing marijuana don’t like the idea of the government making money from it.

Del. Randy Minchew of Leesburg told the Loudoun Times-Mirror, "When I hear about legislators in Washington and Colorado (legalizing) it because it helps them make some money, I think that's improper," the Republican said.

"I think allowing for a recreational use of a narcotic so you can tax it is not a legitimate public policy purpose.”

Del. John Bell, a Democrat from Loudon County, is also against the legalization of marijuana, but does believe that the commonwealth should get rid of harsh criminal penalties. Bell and Minchew support the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

A spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam told the Times-Dispatch in March that he “hopes to continue working toward a broader legalization of medical marijuana.”

Rep. Senate Majority Leader, Tommy Norment, has been open to more lenient marijuana laws, including allowing first-time offenders charged with possession to have the charge expunged.

He has changed his mind, according to a Times-Dispatch article, because a decriminalization bill would not survive a House committee, he said.

This means the state’s conversation about legalizing marijuana will continue.