Marijuana: Lawmakers should look to Virginia

A small group of West Virginia lawmakers spent much of this year’s legislative session behaving as though they would have been among those opposing our state’s secession from Virginia (and therefore the Confederacy) nearly 160 years ago. Perhaps, then, those folks will look to what Virginia did last week and be more likely to participate in real conversations about how the Mountain State can move forward on the issue of legalizing recreational marijuana.

Virginia became the first southern state to legalize recreational marijuana with a bill that will at first simply lay the groundwork for creation of an agency overseeing its marijuana marketplace. Those sales will not begin until 2024. But in the meantime, it is legal for adults to possess and cultivate small amounts of marijuana, without the intent to distribute. It is still illegal to smoke marijuana in public.

“Just like you can’t drink in public, you can’t smoke in public under this,” said state Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat.

If there is no revenue coming in for another few years, why the sense of urgency? Because Virginia lawmakers understood something else.

“The amendments ensure that while we’re doing the complicated work of standing up a commercial market, we aren’t delaying immediate reforms that will make our Commonwealth more equitable for all Virginians,” said state House Majority Leader Charniele Herring. In fact, the move is being hailed by advocates as a victory for racial justice.

Recall that just two months ago, some West Virginia lawmakers were wondering whether this was the right time for the legalization and taxation of recreational marijuana. For some, the idea was paired with the then-believable talking point that lawmakers wanted to work toward attracting and retaining 400,000 residents.

Some of them have spent the entirety of the session proving they want nothing of the kind.

Virginia’s plan may contain little that would apply to a real discussion in West Virginia. But imagine if lawmakers had been able to talk about new revenue streams from the taxes and fees associated with the legalized cultivation and sale of recreational marijuana here, while developing a personal income tax phase-out.

Just a month ago, even Gov. Jim Justice said he was “weakening” in his opposition to legalized recreational marijuana, and that he was ready to engage in some real discussion of the issue.

We’ll have 10 months to watch what happens in Virginia before the start of the next legislative session. Maybe by then enough lawmakers will have their priorities in order to take Justice at his word.


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