The first Southern state legalizes marijuana — what it means nationally

A marijuana plant
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The commonwealth of Virginia has become the first state in the South to legalize marijuana for adults. 

Starting July 1, those ages 21 and older will be permitted to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and they’ll be able to home-cultivate up to four marijuana plants. Retail sales of cannabis products are expected to start no later than July 1, 2024. 

Virginia’s decision to legalize follows similar actions in recent days by lawmakers in New York and New Mexico. In New York, the governor signed legislation legalizing the adult-use market on March 31, while New Mexico’s governor is expected to sign similar legislation into law any day now.

For those keeping score at home, in total 17 states and the District of Columbia will have enacted adult-use legalization legislation by this summer.

That means that 188 U.S. House members hail from states that have adult-use marijuana, representing 44 percent of the chamber. Subsequently, legal state representatives are over-represented in positions of authority, claiming 61 percent of the powerful Congressional House committee and subcommittee chair positions.

And those numbers could climb even higher this year with active legalization efforts still underway in Delaware, Connecticut, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. 

These changes in state laws come on the heels of a newly published poll by The Hill/HarrisX Daily, where 75 percent of Americans said they opposed the federal prohibition of marijuana, with only 25 percent supporting the status quo of national criminalization.

Other notable aspects of the poll demonstrated:

Voters of all political persuasions opposed federal prohibition, with 84 percent of Democrats, 66 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of independents opposing the status quo.

Among urbanicity groups, 83 percent of urban residents, 72 percent of suburban residents and 72 percent of rural voters oppose the status quo.

Based on the previous presidential election, 84 percent of Biden voters, 64 percent of Trump voters and 71 percent of “other” voters oppose the status quo.

Voters in every age group opposed the status quo, ranging from 88 percent of those 18-34, 81 percent of those from 35-49, 67 percent of those 50-64, and 69 percent of those 65+.

Political opponents of reform are acutely aware that they have lost their war on marijuana and their public pronouncements seem to become more absurd by the day. For example, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) recently alleged, “If you legalize marijuana, you’re going to kill your kids.” Some television commentators have made outlandish claims.  

Yet despite these large advances in states around the country, there is still much more work to be done and policy reform to be won before otherwise law-abiding Americans are no longer at risk of arrest and incarceration for simple marijuana possession. In the most recent data provided by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, police made 545,602 arrests for marijuana-related violations in 2019.

For context, that is 9 percent higher than the total number of persons arrested for the commission of violent crimes

To be certain, legalization neither creates nor normalizes the commercial marijuana market, nor does it drive consumer demand. The marijuana market already exists throughout the country, with Gallup routinely finding that one in eight Americans identify as someone who smokes marijuana.

But because of prohibition, this consumer marketplace largely remains underground and those involved in it largely remain unaccountable. Criminal entrepreneurs don’t pay taxes, they don’t check IDs and they don’t test the purity of their product. Disputes that arise in the illicit marketplace are not adjudicated in courts of law. 

Last year, members of the House approved the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act to end federal prohibition and allow states to become the primary arbiters of cannabis regulation, as well as provide incentives for states to expunge the criminal records of those with non-violent marijuana offenses. Yet unfortunately, the MORE Act was not taken up for consideration by the previous Senate controlled by now-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). 

But now, new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has committed, along with Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), that they will be introducing their own comprehensive package to end federal criminalization soon. 

Now, it is time for other state and federal lawmakers to fall in line with the arch of history and the overwhelming view of voters: enact sensible cannabis legalization and regulation. Should they fail too, they will look profoundly out-of-step with the public come time for the midterm elections. 

Justin Strekal is the political director of NORML.

Tags Cannabis cannabis bill Chuck Schumer Cory Booker marijuana decriminalization Marijuana laws marijuana legalization Mitch McConnell MORE Act Pete Ricketts Ron Wyden

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