WINCHESTER — Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring this week called for legalizing recreational marijuana use, but at least two area legislators don’t support the idea.
Marijuana, classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic by the federal government since 1937, has been decriminalized or legalized in numerous states in recent years. It remains illegal in Virginia, though the commonwealth did expand its medical cannabis program this year.
Herring is the first Virginia official to push for legalization.
“Criminalization of marijuana possession is not working for Virginia,” Herring told reporters on Saturday, according to The Washington Post. “We are needlessly creating criminals and getting a lot of convictions. ... And this whole system — the weight of it — falls disproportionately on African Americans and people of color. There is a better, smarter way to approach cannabis, and it starts with decriminalizing simple possession of small amounts, addressing past convictions and moving thoughtfully toward legal and regulated adult use.”
But Del. Dave LaRock, R-Hamilton, said, “It’s not the time to be talking about expanded drug use for recreational purposes,” citing the opioid epidemic and the popularity of nicotine products like e-cigarettes among teenagers as reasons to discontinue talk about legalizing marijuana in Virginia.
While LaRock concedes that marijuana laws do disproportionately affect black Americans, he thinks Herring’s announcement is meant to secure political support among Virginia’s black voters following Herring’s admission earlier this year, during Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface political scandal, that he wore blackface to a Halloween party when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Virginia.
“I suspect it’s for political reasons,” LaRock said, adding that Herring, a Democrat, is laying the foundation to run for governor in 2021.
Del. Chris Collins, R-Frederick County, said that Herring’s comments about marijuana legalization have gotten a lot of attention but it’s unlikely the General Assembly will support it.
“Nothing has changed... I don’t think Virginia is going to decriminalize [marijuana] so long as it remains a Schedule 1 drug on the federal books,” said Collins, who is a lawyer.
Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville, did not respond to requests for comment Monday or Tuesday. Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke County, declined to comment on Tuesday.
State and local chapters of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) have called on prosecutors to stop pursuing criminal charges against low-level marijuana crimes. Local commonwealth’s attorneys have said they will not discontinue prosecution of marijuana crimes until state or federal laws change.