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Now that Democrats have won control of both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly, cannabis is back in the conversation. Democrat lawmakers have already formed the Virginia Cannabis Caucus and some have already announced plans to file legalization proposals in the legislative session that begins in January. But Democrats face an uphill battle as they work to turn those bills into laws. And it’s Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring who’s stepping up to take a leading role in shifting Virginia politics toward meaningful marijuana reform.
On December 11, Attorney General Herring will host the 2019 Virginia Cannabis Summit. The summit will feature panel presentations and discussions with researchers who study cannabis and policy experts from states with legalized or decriminalized marijuana. Herring wants Virginia lawmakers to attend, in hopes the summit can elevate the upcoming debates on cannabis reform bills. Herring wants Virginia to move toward fully legal adult use, and the summit is about ensuring policymakers have real knowledge and experience shaping their decisions.
Attorney General Herring’s invitation to the 2019 Virginia Cannabis Summit says the event will consist of four panels of experts from around the country. The panels will focus more on policy than the health science behind cannabis, and topics ranging from decriminalization and social equity to regulating CBD and hemp will be on the agenda. These are topics that highlight what Virginia lawmakers’ near-term goals are in terms of cannabis legislation: decriminalization and expungement, and bringing state law up-to-date with federal policy on hemp and CBD products. Each is an important reform lawmakers could pursue as early as January 2020.
The Cannabis Summit will also show lawmakers various strategies for legalizing cannabis through the legislative process. The more pro-legalization lawmakers can be informed about strategies that worked in other states, the better chance they have at developing effective policy proposals. Democrats who want to move Virginia toward a future with legal weed will need those perspectives if they want to win the support of fellow lawmakers and Gov. Ralph Northam. So far, Northam has said he’ll only support decriminalization and expungement measures.
Virginia is lagging behind much of the country on reforming cannabis laws. The state only has limited medical marijuana legalization. And long-held Republican control of the Assembly has meant any legislative attempt to decriminalize possession or legalize adult use has died in committee.
Now, however, Democrats have a real chance at passing measures like decriminalization and criminal record expungement. And Attorney General Herring is seizing the opportunity to increase his advocacy around cannabis policy. “The social and human costs are tremendous,” Herring wrote in an op-ed published in The Virginia-Pilot on Sunday. “There are smarter, better ways we can handle cannabis.”
NORML’s Virginia chapter is already applauding Herring’s initiative. In fact, NORML recognized Herring’s cannabis reform advocacy back in September with its Vanguard Award. Indeed, Herring’s Cannabis Summit could be the momentum shift Virginia needs to bounce back from a brutal year for efforts to address the immense human and social costs of criminalizing marijuana. However, the state did manage to pass a trio of medical cannabis bills in early July, expanding access to a program many patients, caregivers and lawmakers have criticized as overly restrictive.
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