By Bronwyn Flores, Communications Manager, Metrc
The Virginia I know and grew up in is diverse and dynamic. It has a strong public education system and thriving tech business economy. But never before would I have considered Virginia to be a leader in criminal justice and drug policy reform. So, it’s both exciting and encouraging to see my home state move so quickly to advance cannabis legalization.
Just last year, the Old Dominion had its first legal medical cannabis sale, lessened punishment of possession to a $25 fine, and it protected citizens from having their cars searched because of the smell of cannabis. And now, in February, the state legislature has passed House Bill 2312 and Senate Bill 1416 for adult-use cannabis legalization, prioritizing social equity in that plan and supporting local communities hurt most by the war on drugs.
It’s worth noting Virginia’s cannabis legislation was informed by an almost 500-page report authored by the state’s secretaries of agriculture, finance, health and homeland security at the request of lawmakers. In other words, in setting this ambitious goal, Virginia did its homework. The time is ripe for meaningful policy change.
Here’s how Virginia can be a leader in the country, and especially to its neighbors in the South, for its thoughtful approach to cannabis policy.
First and foremost, Virginia’s cannabis legalization will correct systemic wrongs of our criminal justice system. More specifically, legalization will automatically expunge some marijuana-related offenses, and it will create a social equity program for Virginians with previous cannabis convictions and those living in areas hurt by marijuana law enforcement or that are economically distressed. We know this is important because Black people are almost four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates. Addressing these harms on communities of color while simultaneously creating a legal cannabis marketplace shows Virginia is “putting its money where its mouth is,” and prioritizing calls for racial justice.
At the same time, establishing a well-regulated cannabis industry will protect consumer health and safety. Cannabis consumers will have questions about these new products, including where they came from and what’s in them. To answer them, Virginia will need a system for product accountability.
That’s why the legalization plan calls for a track-and-trace system which will use technology to literally track legal cannabis products from a seedling to the final sale at a dispensary. These track-and-trace systems keep consumers safe and bring transparency to a previously underground industry by ensuring no illicit cannabis products are sold in the legal cannabis market, and no legal cannabis products are sold unlawfully.
Lastly, advancing cannabis legalization is an opportunity for bipartisanship. As legalization and regulation details are finalized among Virginia’s policymakers, there’s room for legislators from across the table to collaborate. In fact, polls have shown that legalizing cannabis and establishing a new booming industry for the state is an issue that both parties can get behind.
There’s no denying the legal U.S. cannabis industry is a job creator that will boost the state’s tax revenue. But, in the absence of federal movement, the importance of Virginia taking this step forward cannot be overstated.
Cannabis legalization marks a new chapter in the state’s history and will set a strong precedent to other southern states that have, at best, a limited medical cannabis market, and, at worst, excessive penalties for anything relating to cannabis.
Bronwyn Flores is a Virginia native and graduate of the University of Mary Washington. She is also the communications manager for Metrc, a company providing cannabis regulatory systems.