Virginia Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam — who hopes to be the next governor of Virginia — publicly announced his support for the decriminalization of marijuana in Virginia.
“We need to change sentencing laws that disproportionately hurt people of color. One of the best ways to do this is to decriminalize marijuana,” he wrote on Medium, and in a press release sent out this afternoon. “African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia. The Commonwealth spends more than $67 million on marijuana enforcement—money that could be better spent on rehabilitation.”
Northam, a pediatric neurologist at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, took a more cautious approach when it comes to legalizing medical marijuana in Virginia. In this year’s General Assembly session numerous medical marijuana-related bills were introduced.
“As a doctor, I’m becoming increasingly convinced by the data showing potential health benefits of marijuana, such as pain relief, drug-resistant epilepsy, and treatment for PTSD,” Northam wrote. “By decriminalizing it, our researchers can better study the plant so doctors can more effectively prescribe drugs made from it.”
While these views might be considered progressive by old school Virginia standards, they still lag behind public opinion in the Commonwealth. According to a poll conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University, “Almost 8 out of 10 respondents favored reducing the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana to a $100 fine instead of a misdemeanor conviction, and 62 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that recreational use of marijuana should be legalized.”
Northam’s challenger to be the Democratic nominee for governor is Tom Perriello, whose policy page on his website does not yet mention these issues. I reached out to his office for a statement, and will update this post when I hear back.
The Lt. Governor’s positions on marijuana reform were part of a press release titled, “Ralph Northam Unveils Agenda To Reform Virginia’s Criminal Justice System,” in which he also called for increased support for substance abuse treatment programs, continuing the restoration of rights of those who have paid their debts to society, and investing in mental health in jails and prisons.