Experts say Gov. Northam’s plan to legalize marijuana needs to address racial disparities

Northam Marijuana Plan_WVIR

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Governor Ralph Northam says he plans to legalize marijuana statewide when the General Assembly convenes in January, but former-Governor Terry McAuliffe and the executive director of Marijuana Justice say addressing racial disparities is critical.

“What we enacted on July 1 of this year was a decriminalization with tons of fines, fees and penalties, which we know will only be enforced on Black and brown Virginians,” Marijuana Justice Executive Director Chelsea Higgs Wise said.

Northam recently announced efforts to legalize marijuana in Virginia for recreational use, including setting up marketplaces within 18 to 24 months, but Wise says that should be a secondary goal.

“We know that Black Virginians have had 3.4 times more the enforcement than white Virginians. This is an important subject that we need to make sure we do right," she said.

She says doing it right means moving slowly and methodically. McAuliffe agrees.

“Other states have done this and have been successful putting this operation together and I commend Governor Northam. Let’s do it, let’s do it smartly, slowly, and do it in a judicious way so it works for everyone," McAuliffe said.

It is not just about what’s ahead.

“We need to go back and look at those records and clean out those records. It’s not fair to the people in the past, as I say disproportionally affecting Black and brown communities, who do have this on their record. It’s impacted their ability to get jobs and provide for their family,” the former governor said.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) issued a study pushing for a one-time expungement of previous marijuana conviction records.

The Legal Aid Justice Center, which works with people to help expunge records, says the process is currently cumbersome.

“You have to pay a filing fee, you probably have to hire a lawyer because the process is complicated. You’re filing a civil case in circuit court, which most lay people haven’t done before. You have to go get fingerprinted, and then there’s a background check," attorney Rob Poggenklass said.

JLARC is pushing the General Assembly to pass a one-time expungement of marijuana records, lifting a barrier to housing, jobs and loans for thousands of Virginians.

“A one-time wipe of all previous marijuana possession convictions. 120,000 records, they estimated, and 63,000 of those would be for Black Virginians,” Poggenklass said.

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