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Proposals to legalize recreational marijuana in Virginia are expected to get their first serious hearings when the General Assembly meets in January, and for now at least, it seems like there is a good chance they might succeed.

In the Senate they give it “a little better than 50-50 chances”.

And Governor Ralph Northam’s office says he’s “definitely open to it.”

Proposals to legalize recreational marijuana in Virginia are expected to get their first serious hearings when the General Assembly meets in January, and for now at least, it seems like there is a good chance they might succeed.

“It is high time we actually made this change, and I think other people saw it too,” said Del. Mike Mullen, D-Newport News, chairman of the House Criminal Law Subcommittee, believes there are enough votes in the chamber to end the drug ban. “I can tell you that I think it will pass.”

The Virginia movement comes after voters in four states overwhelmingly approved referendums to legalize marijuana, bringing the nationwide total to 15. If Virginia lawmakers move forward, the state would be the first in the south to approve recreational use of the drug.

Virginia has slowly loosened its stance on marijuana for years, first allowing medical use of CBD in 2017, expanding it to a full-fledged medical marijuana program by 2019, and passing laws earlier this year that reduced the penalty for those caught with small individuals The drug amounts to a fine of $ 25.

However, so far, no proposals to fully legalize and regulate adult drug use have resulted in both chambers taking the floor in the General Assembly, although public opinion has rapidly shifted in favor of the measures.

The result came as no surprise when Republicans controlled the General Assembly, many of whom opposed efforts to expand access to the drug. Some Democrats, eager to break the ban after winning majorities in the House and Senate last year, were disappointed when their colleagues opposed their own legalization laws.

Democrats cited decriminalization – and now legalization – as an important step in ending unequal enforcement of drug laws against Black Virginians, despite studies showing they are using the drug at about the same rate as their white counterparts significantly higher prosecution rates were prosecuted.

But Democratic leaders, including Northam, said last year it would be irresponsible for the state to go straight to full legalization of the drug without first studying how other states have approached the problem. To that end, lawmakers requested two studies reviewing potential regulatory models and tax systems when it approved decriminalization in March.

These studies are slated for this month – the first is due to be unveiled on Monday – and party leaders say they are ready to seriously consider the issue.

The Northam office and those in charge in the House and Senate all said that since the subject is completely new to the state, they will be looking for comprehensive guidance on how to build and regulate the new industry from scratch. The remaining questions include how licenses to grow and sell the plant will be distributed, what local governments should say in the process, and whether a new government agency should be created to control the industry or an existing bureaucracy like the Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority should take over the duties.

Northam – a doctor who helped raise the state’s smoking age to 21 and raised drug tolerance concerns earlier this year – remains interested in youth health and how those concerns are being addressed, said his chief of staff, Clark Mercer. But in the context of adult use, he said Northam understands the broader history of its ban in the country, largely sparked by anti-Mexican and anti-black sentiment at the beginning of the 20th century, and fears the drug is the two Getting groups to “Forget their place in American society,” as CBS News put it in 2016.

“He’s definitely open to it, and we’ll look at the reports when they come out and dig into the details of how you regulate an industry,” said Mercer. “The door in our office is not closed on this issue.”

In the House of Representatives, Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, Mullin agreed that a legalization law could evacuate the Chamber: “I think it has a good chance,” she said. However, she warned members would not break a bill: “But I can’t say that it will definitely happen if members are not comfortable with the right regulatory construct.”

She said one area she will focus on is ensuring that the population most severely affected by the ban – the Black Virginians – have an opportunity to get involved in a new industry. For example, some states have reserved a number of retail and manufacturing licenses for minority companies.

In the Senate, where the Democrats have a narrower majority of 21-19, the bigger question is whether the Basic Concept can muster enough support to survive.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, has said in the past that while he supported decriminalization, he wasn’t sure he would support legalization. In a phone call on Thursday, he said he was open to the idea. “I am ready to listen,” he said. “I want to hear what both sides have to say.”

He put the likelihood of a passage “slightly better than 50-50,” an assessment by Senator Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who proposed the decriminalization bill earlier this year and plans to pass a legalization bill with Senator Jennifer in January McClellan, D-Richmond.

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, chairman of the Chamber’s Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said he had withheld the verdict until the studies were in but did not expect to return to the matter anytime soon after decriminalization. “I’m not against the idea,” he said. “I just want to get it right.”

While Democrats make up the bulk of the support, votes on this issue are unlikely to fall solely on party lines, said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law, who led lobbying on the bill and found that about a dozen Republicans supported decriminalization.

Ebbin said that regardless of the outcome for the next year, Virginia was on track to move forward sooner rather than later.

“I think it’s pretty clear that people expect this to happen at some point,” he said.

This story was first published by Virginia Mercury, part of the States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c (3) nonprofit organization.

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