Virginia will soon join 15 other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing marijuana. The Commonwealth was once so conservative that progressive legislation seemed like pie in the sky.
But the political landscape is changing in Virginia and now, so are the laws.
The Democratic-controlled House and Senate decriminalized marijuana last year and those same lawmakers took it a step further this past weekend as they narrowly passed a bill to legalize marijuana in 2024.
Not a single Republican in either chamber voted in favor. Now, all that's left is for the Democratic Governor Ralph Northam to sign the bill into law.
It's one he supports, although there is evidence he may not be completely satisfied with how it is written today. In a statement to 13News Now this week, his office said "there's still a lot of work ahead..." and that the governor "looks forward to continuing to improve this legislation."
So, it's possible he amends the bill which, as of today, would establish a regulatory agency this summer. It would legalize possession of pot up to an ounce beginning January 1, 2024. That's also when retail sales could begin and that means cannabis shops popping up on a street near you.
And yes: the product would be taxed, possibly raking in $300 million a year in tax revenue, according to one estimate.
But while lawmakers are thinking green, some health advocates are seeing red.
13News Now is investigating different angles of the debate in a special series called “Pot for Profit.”
Chapter one: A Racial Disparity
Marijuana laws hurt Black Virginians more than others, according to Gov. Ralph Northam.
Northam pointed to "social equity" as just one reason to rewrite the laws.
13News Now spoke with one Black Hampton Roads man who has lived life as a felon ever since his marijuana-related arrest several years ago.
The man, who we will call "Michael," first told his story to the nonprofit Cruel Consequences, and wished to remain anonymous for his TV interview.
“I had never been in trouble a day in my life, ever, this is the first time me ever getting in trouble anywhere - and I got the book thrown at me," he said.
Michael was in his 20s when a medical condition required dialysis and a kidney transplant. That's when he began experimenting with marijuana.
“I was speaking with a nurse and she just kinda mentioned it to me, like, 'You should try it,'" he said.
Michael found it helped.
However, his choice of medicine was illegal in Virginia, and buying it on the black market proved dangerous.
"I had a gun drawn on me in Newport News and the guy robbed me of $160," he said. “He could have took more than that, that night. I was just happy to make it home to my wife and my son.”
Michael decided it would be safer to have a friend mail the product from Colorado, a state that legalized recreational and medical use.
But medicinal or not, Michael was committing a crime in the eyes of the Commonwealth. Police caught him and charged him with two felonies.
It was the first and only blemish on an otherwise clean record. Lucky for him, the judge opted for probation instead of prison.
“I feel dirty, I feel like I committed a crime... like a real crime. Like I murdered someone, or like I’ve done something really bad," Michael said.
Had Michael been arrested this year, the outcome might have been different.
Virginia lawmakers voted to decriminalize certain marijuana possession last year, and allow for medical cannabis sales.
Now Governor Northam wants to take it a step further and legalize recreational use, pointing to a history of racial inequality as a driving force.
“We know that while white people and Black people use marijuana at similar rates, Black people are three and a half times more likely to be charged with a crime for it," Northam said during his State of the Commonwealth address in January.
For Michael, it's been several years since his arrest. His probation is now over, but his medical issues are not. And neither are the long-term consequences of living life as a felon.
Michael said he can't further his education because the felony conviction makes him ineligible for financial aid.
He said if his record was expunged, he'd be able to move on with his life.
“Go back to school, further my career, just get back to my productive life, I don’t have to walk on eggshells," he said.
Michael will always be a felon in the eye of the law, unless lawmakers choose to change that, too.
Chapter two: Wiping Records Clean
The move to make marijuana legal in Virginia could mean wiping away past convictions.
Portsmouth Commonwealth's Attorney Stephanie Morales has spent a career prosecuting criminals. But now she's advocating for some of their records to be automatically expunged.
"We have to, as a system, have restorative justice," Morales said. "If we're talking about legalization, and industry and opening up opportunities for people to build wealth, we cannot have that conversation without talking about expungements."
Virginia's lawmakers voted Friday to legalize marijuana but are still fine-tuning language in the legislation before sending it to Governor Ralph Northam for his signature. The final bill will likely include some form of expungements.
“That is not going to make our community any safer, you know, to punish somebody who has done a non-violent offense. And that’s what we have to think about when it comes to marijuana,” Morales said.
In Chapter One of "Pot for Profit," we spoke with a Hampton Roads man about his marijuana-related arrest from several years ago. Michael, as we're calling him, used marijuana as a self-prescribed medication for a health issue. He served his probation but his criminal record still reads felon.
"Why charge me, why still have it on my record if you're going to tax it? If you're going to regulate it? If you're going to distribute it in a state where at one point you told me it was illegal?" Michael asked.
Morales did not take a position one way or another on legalization. But she contends if lawmakers vote to legalize, then they must also vote to expunge.
"How do we make sure that as we're moving forward trying to do well by people that we are also looking backwards trying to correct the harms of the past?" Morales asked. “With legalization, I want to see true expungements. And even if legalization doesn’t happen, I want to see true expungements. That’s my biggest fight.”
Lawmakers approved both the House (2312) and Senate (1406) Bills for legalizing marijuana Friday. Language in the current bills include an automatic expungement process for those convicted of certain marijuana-related crimes.
Chapter three: Not All Support Legalization
The majority of Virginians say it’s time to legalize marijuana.
Sixty-eight percent of registered voters support legalizing marijuana, according to a February 2021 survey from Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center.
But one Virginia doctor finds himself in the minority. As a hospice physician, Dr. James Avery went years not thinking much about marijuana.
“I was pretty blasé, laissez-faire about marijuana,” said Dr. Avery. “I didn’t care if my patients... ok they took it, we laugh, giggle a little, then move on.”
But Dr. Avery started conducting his own research into the topic several years ago, and he’s now concluded that legalizing pot is no laughing matter.
“I am worried about the future if this becomes widespread use,” he said.
Dr. Avery is becoming a bit of an expert in the cannabis field. He recently wrote a book titled “Marijuana: An Honest Look at the World’s Most Misunderstood Weed.”
“The public sees it as safer than they did years ago -- more safer -- but at the same time, the medical literature looks more disturbing, more bothersome, especially in young people,” he said.
Dr. Avery, who is also a professor at the University of Virginia Medical School and a Virginia State Director for the American Academy of Medical Ethics, hoped to share his viewpoints with those in power.
On January 25, he co-wrote a letter to Virginia lawmakers urging them to vote no on legalization. The cost of weed is too high, he wrote, arguing the state could see an increase in both mental illness and car accidents.
“I think we’re going to see a significant increase in accidents,” Dr. Avery said. “Number two, I think we’re going to see a slow but steady increase in mental disease among young people. I think we’re going to see heavy users increase.”
But Dr. Avery’s warning didn’t sway enough lawmakers. Ten days after he wrote the letter, both chambers of the Virginia legislature voted to legalize. The House bill passed with a vote margin of 55-42, while the Senate’s version passed 23-15.
Now lawmakers like Delegate Steve Heretick (D-Portsmouth) are ironing out a final bill for the governor’s inevitable signature.
“This simply says to those consenting adults who have used it or want to use it in the future that all right: this is how we’re going to do it, we’re going to produce it in Virginia, it’s going to be a safe product, you’re going to know what’s in it, you’re going to be able to acquire it legally, and you’re going to be required to use it legally,” Heretick said.
Dr. Avery says he believes medical marijuana has the potential to do good, but he’d like to see FDA approval. Until then, he warned lawmakers in his letter that the implications of legalization could be “devastating, unintended or irreversible.”
“I just don’t think America of the future, that what we need is another hallucinogenic, I don’t think that’s the answer for the America as I see it for my grandkids,” Dr. Avery said.
Chapter four: An Increased Danger on the Road?
The push to legalize marijuana in Virginia has raised concerns, and some health advocates tried sounding the alarm to lawmakers.
Nancy Haans, Executive Director of the Prevention Council of Roanoke, says parents are confused about what message to send their kids about marijuana.
“This is about our health. Vaping and smoking, there’s nothing good about inhaling that into your lungs, especially in the midst of COVID,” Haans said. “We can’t talk out of two sides of our mouths to kids because it’s very confusing.”
Governor Ralph Northam pitched legislation this year to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana. He said it would raise tax revenue for schools while rooting out inequities.
Haans said we can learn from states that have already legalized.
“We know that the first two things that go up in data are youth usage and car crashes,” Haans said. “When people say you can’t die from marijuana, I say that’s just not true.”
One study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found car crashes increased six percent since legalization in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.
In Virginia, 90 deceased drivers in 2019 tested positive for some level of THC out of the 827 recorded traffic fatalities. The DMV reported similar numbers in 2018, with 94 deceased drivers testing positive for some level of THC.
But the detection of THC does not necessarily mean the person was driving while impaired, as noted by the Virginia Marijuana Legalization Work Group. The group prepared a report for Governor Northam in November that included the following passage about impaired driving:
Currently, Virginia does not have robust data about drug-impaired driving, particularly when it comes to THC. Crashes or traffic stops that do not involve a fatality often yield little to no data about potential drug use or poly-substance use. During the course of an impaired driving investigation, if the law enforcement officer has reasonable cause to believe, through field sobriety tests, a preliminary breath test, or other information, that the individual was driving under the influence of any drug, the officer may obtain a sample of whole blood through implied consent or via search warrant. A Drug Recognition Expert (DRE), which is a law enforcement officer trained to recognize impairment in drivers under the influence of drugs other than, or in addition to, alcohol, 52 can be called in to document evidence of signs and symptoms that indicate potential impairment. The testing of collected blood sample(s) can detect THC or other drugs in the blood related to impaired driving. However, blood draws require a medical professional to collect the sample and therefore take longer to complete, giving the drugs time to metabolize further. Furthermore, the detection of THC presence in the blood does not necessarily indicate a person was driving while impaired.
Marijuana’s role in crashes is not as clear as the link between alcohol and crashes, the IIHS noted in its study.
“We have field sobriety tests for alcohol. Is there such a thing for marijuana? No, there is not,” said Dr. Mary Crozier.
Dr. Crozier is a health advocate in Virginia Beach and is also worried about impaired driving. She reached out to every Virginia lawmaker before the General Assembly session began in January with data that she said proved marijuana is not safe.
“Some of the challenges we’re seeing nationwide is that potency levels have increased dramatically,” Dr. Crozier said. “This is not our grandparent’s marijuana anymore, this is a whole new beast we’ve got here.”
Virginia State Police did not want to weigh in on any pending legislation, but a spokesperson for VSP reiterated to 13News Now that their impaired driving messages apply to both driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs, both legal and illegal.