Arrests for marijuana dropped last year in Virginia compared to 2018, an encouraging development for a state that is a month away from decriminalization taking effect.
Commonwealth law enforcement completed 26,470 arrests in 2019 for pot-related offenses, which NORML noted represented a drop from 28,866 such arrests the year before—a more than eight percent drop. Those arrests accounted for 57 percent of drug-related arrests in Virginia in 2019.
On July 1, Virginia will become the latest state to decriminalize marijuana, after Gov. Ralph Northam in April signed a sweeping criminal justice legislative package. In a statement heralding the bill, Northam said that every “Virginian deserves access to a fair and equitable criminal justice system.”
“These bills combat mass incarceration, increase support for returning citizens, and ensure that those who have paid their debt to society have a meaningful second chance. I thank the General Assembly for working with us to build a more just and inclusive Commonwealth,” the Democrat, whose term expires at the end of next year, said at the time.
With the measure, Virginia joined 26 other states that had already decriminalized marijuana in some form.
Outright legalization of marijuana — which Northam has not embraced — could emerge as a hot button issue in the state’s 2021 gubernatorial election. The decriminalization legislation did include a provision establishing a group to look into legalization, which will offer up a report to the governor and lawmakers next year.
The state will be through with its next gubernatorial election at that point, and Northam’s possible successor could be prepared to take that next step. Mark Herring, Virginia’s Democratic attorney general who will be running a gubernatorial bid last year, has come out forcefully in favor of lifting the prohibition on pot, a position he broadcast in a tweet back last October.
There is polling to show the public is on Herring’s side, too. A survey from University of Mary Washington last fall found that 61 percent of Virginians favor ending the prohibition on pot. A different survey from Christopher Newport University in December found that an even larger majority — 83 percent — supported decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.