AG Mark Herring

In December 2018 Attorney General Mark Herring spoke at a roundtable discussion on hate crimes held at Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church.

RICHMOND — Virginia Democratic leaders will push next year for decriminalizing marijuana possession and wiping clean the records of thousands of people convicted of using the drug - proposals they expect to succeed with their party in control of the statehouse.

During an all-day summit convened Wednesday by Attorney General Mark Herring, members of a new General Assembly "Cannabis Caucus" explored the best approaches to eliminating criminal penalties of as much as 30 days in jail for pot possession.

They also consulted with officials from states that have legalized recreational marijuana about doing the same thing in Virginia, though several of the lawmakers said that might take a few years.

Herring, a potential Democratic candidate for governor next year, organized the summit to build momentum for getting rid of punitive marijuana laws that he argued have led to unnecessary criminal convictions, blocking tens of thousands of Virginians from finding good jobs, qualifying for loans or receiving other kinds of assistance.

"I don't believe that Virginia's current system of criminalizing cannabis is working," Herring told a group of about 100 summit participants, citing statistics that show the number of marijuana-related arrests have tripled since 1999 to nearly 30,000 last year, with people of color disproportionately affected.

"Even if someone is able to avoid jail time for marijuana possession, they're still stuck with a criminal record," Herring said. "It is clear to me that it is time for a new, smarter approach to cannabis in Virginia. And, the question we're here to answer today is: What does that look like?"

Momentum has been building around the country for regulated pot use. In all, nearly 30 states have passed decriminalization laws, while 11 now consider marijuana a legal drug, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A 2014 law approved by District of Columbia voters allows residents to grow and possess small amounts of pot in their homes. But they can't legally buy it, and the city can't tax marijuana sales because of a federal budget provision that prohibits the District from enacting or enforcing legalization laws - an obstacle House Democrats hope to strip away.

Maryland treats both the public use of marijuana and possession of up to 10 grams of the drug as civil offenses, punishable by a fine of as much as $500. The state legalized marijuana for medical use in 2013, and commissioned a bipartisan group of Maryland lawmakers to craft legislation for 2020 that would legalize the drug. But its leaders concluded they need more time to work out the regulatory and taxing details, and will not introduce a legalization bill in the session that begins in January.

Democrats in Virginia are also unsure of how best to pursue more relaxed marijuana laws. The state is preparing to roll out a program next year to allow residents to buy medical cannabis oil at five state-approved dispensaries, operating under a measure approved in 2017. But Cannabis Caucus co-chair Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, said he's not yet ready to support legalizing marijuana - a potentially volatile idea that most Republicans oppose.

"What we have to be careful of . . . is that people drift away from `this is medicine' to 'this is a recreational drug,'" Mardsen said at the summit. "And we end up with people treating themselves and . . . just run down to find something that will get them high."

Marsden said he wants to instead focus on ensuring that the cannabis oil program is well-run, while working to pass long-stalled legislation that would eliminate criminal penalties related to possession of marijuana and reduce disparities among different racial groups.

"If, instead of arrests, you just replace it with civil penalties, the same people are going to be impacted," Marsden said. "I think we have to put some thought in this."

At the Wednesday summit, several lawmakers treated as a foregone conclusion that some type of marijuana law reforms would be signed into law next year.

The participants listened to officials from Colorado and Illinois discuss the logistics of passing marijuana legislation and some of the complexities of regulating a commercial pot industry that, opponents argue, has led to an increase in teenage drug use and more cases of driving under the influence of marijuana around the country.

Several Virginia Democrats who were supportive of legalization said they, too, wanted to be cautious about making that happen.

"When we move to legalization, we need to make sure that there is a distribution system that works, that there's not a black market, that the product is kept away from children and that the taxing is well-thought-out," said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who has introduced a decriminalization bill that, among other things, would include a mechanism for expunging the criminal records of people convicted of marijuana possession.

Del. Stephen Heretick, D-Portsmouth, another Cannabis Caucus co-chair, said he will introduce legislation to establish a regulatory scheme for marijuana growers, manufacturers and retailers, with a goal of pursuing actual legalization within five years.

With a Republicans majority in the General Assembly, a version of that bill and several other marijuana law reforms "lasted minutes if not only seconds in the committees that were assigned to hear them," Heretick said. "In the 2020 session, you can expect a more robust, meaningful debate on these issues."

Jeff Ryer, a spokesman for outgoing Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, R-James City, said in an interview that GOP leaders generally support reducing criminal penalties for marijuana possession. For example, a 2017 law that won overwhelming GOP support stopped the state from penalizing people convicted of pot possession by suspending their driver's licenses for as many as six months.

Under GOP leadership, "a lot of things have been done to change the focus to treatment," Ryer said.

Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said an emphasis on getting marijuana users to seek treatment is most easily done if the alternative to treatment is potential jail time. She called decriminalizing marijuana possession "a slippery slope," though her organization is open to supporting some versions of reduced criminal penalties.

The law enforcement group opposes legalization, arguing that, among other things, it could lead to more driving under the influence of marijuana - particularly as more potent strains of the drug enter the legal market.

"What's being sold out there is much stronger than when I was in college many years ago," Schrad said.

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