virginians want marijuana legalization

A clear majority of Virginians think that marijuana should be legal for adult use in the state, according to a new poll released last month.

Sixty-one percent of more than 1,000 respondents contacted by the University of Mary Washington declared their support for “the legalization of marijuana for recreational use by adults in Virginia.” Thirty-four percent of the phone interviewees said they are not in favor of the measure.

This represents a huge leap in support for the pro-reform movement in the state where a similar survey taken in 2017 reported that only 39 percent of Virginians were in favor of adult use marijuana legalization.

For Jenn Michelle Pedini, Virginia NORML executive director, the latest findings are the inevitable consequence of a failed policy.

“It comes as no surprise that a majority of Virginians support legalizing marijuana. Virginians know prohibition has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars, derailed the lives of hundreds of thousands of hard-working Virginians, and has done nothing to protect our youth or provide for consumer safety. They’re ready for marijuana policy that works for, not against them,” she said.

“Voter attitudes are no longer reflected in state law, and candidates on the campaign trail would be wise to take note,” she added.

While support for marijuana legalization in Virginia grows, so too has the arrest rate for marijuana offenses. Since 1999, the number of cannabis arrests has almost tripled, clocking in at 29,000 last year. Most of those arrested are young people and people of color, typically for possession-related offenses.

The punishment for first-time possession offenders in Virginia is up to 30 days in jail and a criminal record. If an individual re-offends, they could face up to one year in prison.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) said back in July that accelerating marijuana criminalization at a time when most other states are looking at legalization or decriminalization “makes absolutely no sense.”

For now though, the disconnect between voters and lawmakers regarding marijuana policy in Virginia remains, though Gov. Ralph Northam (D) did propose decriminalizing cannabis possession at the start of this year during his State of the Commonwealth address.

“Making simple possession a civil penalty will ease overcrowding in our jails and prisons, and free up our law enforcement and court resources for offenses that are a true threat to public safety,” he said.

But the reality has played out differently from the rhetoric. The Virginia legislature has blocked all proposed marijuana decriminalization bills, thanks to the slim majority held by the Republicans in both chambers. If the scales are tilted towards the Democrats in the upcoming state elections this November, then there is a greater chance that Virginia laws will better reflect voter opinion on the issue of marijuana legalization. The University of Mary Washington poll reveals partisan positions on the issue of marijuana legalization in Virginia. Among Democrats, 72 percent support ending prohibition. This drops to 62 percent for those who identify as independents, and sits at only 41 percent for Republicans.

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