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Virginia Lawmakers to Include Racial Equity in Marijuana Bill

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With U.S. cannabis sales hitting $20 billion last year, Virginia joined four other states considering bills to legalize marijuana. (Adobe Stock)
With U.S. cannabis sales hitting $20 billion last year, Virginia joined four other states considering bills to legalize marijuana. (Adobe Stock)
 By Diane Bernard - Producer, Contact
February 1, 2021

RICHMOND, Va. -- As Virginia's General Assembly debates legalizing marijuana, a House panel met this weekend to fine-tune the bill and include racial-equity policies.

After decriminalizing marijuana last year, lawmakers have introduced House Bill 2312 to regulate a potential billion-dollar industry.

Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Chesterfield, said the committee discussed creating a public-education program for responsible recreational use and curbing possible monopolies.

But most importantly, she pointed out, it would ensure entrepreneurs of color get equal access to entry into the once-illegal industry that penalized them disproportionately for minor marijuana offenses.

"When we talk about how many people have been impacted from the war on drugs, we strongly believe that this version is a balanced approach to not only trying to promote the competitive nature of this industry, but to do so in a way that centers social equity," Aird explained.

From 2010 to 2019, research shows Black Virginians were arrested for marijuana possession 3 1/2 times more than whites, with conviction rates almost four times higher.

The bill would allow people age 21 and older to sell marijuana beginning in 2023, and is now headed to the House Appropriations Committee.

Virginia lawmakers approved medical marijuana use in 2017.

Ngiste Abebe, director of public policy for Columbia Care, a medical marijuana company based in Richmond, attended this weekend's meeting.

She noted it's difficult to run and sustain a cannabis business given high taxes and operational expenses, and urged lawmakers to establish a fair playing field for all to succeed.

"You have, at the federal level, an effective tax rate of 76%," Abebe stressed. "And so, what you end up seeing is social-equity businesses three, four, five years down the line, looking to sell licenses because they can't keep it up, and they can't access the capital they need in order to continue in this business."

Gov. Ralph Northam backs House Bill 2312, which would make possession of one ounce or less of cannabis a civil penalty with a $25 fine.

In a 2019 poll, 61% of Virginians said they support legalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

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