Virginia looks poised to join the ranks of states to decriminalize marijuana, with Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam announcing last week that he backs the policy.

The proposal is part of Northam’s broader criminal justice reform agenda for the new year, which along with cannabis decriminalization includes parole reform, raising the felony larceny threshold, raising the age of juvenile transfer to adult court, and the permanent elimination of driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines, fees and court costs.

“All Virginians deserve access to a fair and equitable criminal justice system,” Northam said Friday in a statement. “My proposed criminal justice reform legislation and budget initiatives will combat mass incarceration, increase supports for returning citizens, and ensure meaningful second chances for those who have paid their debts to society. This is a bold step towards a more just and inclusive Commonwealth, and I look forward to working with the General Assembly to pass these measures into law.”

Decriminalization is Getting More Popular

More than a dozen other states have decriminalized marijuana, with a growing number—most recently Illinois—embracing outright legalization. Under Northam’s proposal, Virginians busted for simple possession of pot would face a $50 civil penalty rather than a criminal misdemeanor. The lenient penalty would apply to those arrested for up to a half-ounce of pot. In addition, Northam said he would expunge the records of individuals previously convicted of simple possession—a provision that Illinois also included in its new marijuana law. 

But Northam did not use the announcement to signal support for marijuana legalization; according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the governor said at the Friday announcement that he would prefer to study the issue before moving forward. 

Northam’s possible successor could move the state in that direction, however. Virginia attorney general Mark Herring, who is running for governor of the state in 2021, called on the state to legalize recreational pot use in October, citing a poll that showed growing support for the policy in the state. 

Last month, Herring hosted a cannabis summit featuring panels and presentations that examined how legalization has worked in other states, such as Colorado.

Herring used the event to once again reiterate his support for ending pot prohibition. 

“Front and center is badly needed reform of our cannabis laws in Virginia. I don’t believe that Virginia’s current system of criminalizing cannabis is working. It is needlessly creating criminals and burdening Virginians with convictions. The human and social costs of this are enormous,” Herring said.

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