Virginia Governor Ralph Northam pushes to legalize recreational marijuana

A file image taken June 18, 2020 shows marijuana plants. (Photo credit: Ricardo Castelan Cruz / Eyepix Group/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Gov. Ralph Northam is pushing to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Virginia, which could be the first Southern state to do so.

Northam announced his support for legalization Monday, saying he wants a responsible approach that promotes racial equity and preserves youth safety. The Democratic governor said he is going to propose legislation during next year’s legislative session, a process he said could take up to two years. But he added that he’s certain the drug will eventually be legal for personal use.

“Legalizing marijuana will happen in Virginia,” Northam said.

The governor had previously supported decriminalizing marijuana but not full legalization. He said there are many reasons why he changed his mind, including unequal punishments for marijuana-related crimes among people of color. A new legislative report issued Monday showed that the average arrest rate of Black Virginians in recent years for marijuana possession was 3.5 times higher than the arrest rate for whites.

Northam said it’s also clear that the public’s views have largely shifted in favor of legalization.

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“As governor, I listen to people,” Northam said.

He said he’s never tried the drug himself.

The governor’s announcement comes as marijuana becomes more broadly accepted throughout the United States. In the most recent election, measures to legalize recreational pot passed in progressive New Jersey, moderate Arizona and conservative Montana and South Dakota. Fifteen states have now broadly legalized it, while 36 states allow medical marijuana.

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Voters in Mississippi overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana this month.

A Gallup Poll released on Nov. 9 indicated that 68% of Americans favor legalizing marijuana — double the approval rate in 2003. That wide margin was evident in the election, with marijuana measures passing with strong bipartisan support.

Democrats took control of both chambers of the General Assembly this year and have been generally receptive to loosening criminal penalties. Northam signed a bill decriminalizing marijuana earlier this year that passed with bipartisan support.

House Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert, a Republican, said he’s opposed to marijuana legalization in Virginia but is still willing to offer “constructive suggestions” on how the state should proceed if legalization ultimately passes.