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Virginia's House And Senate Try to Reach Compromise Over Marijuana Legalization

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Virginia is poised to become the 16th state to legalize recreational marijuana. As lawmakers there finalize the legislation, they're trying to learn the lessons of states that have come before them - lessons on licensing, criminal justice and social equity. Democrats say they are focused on undoing the harm marijuana prohibition has caused to people of color. Whittney Evans and Ben Paviour with member station VPM in Richmond have been covering the process. They're both with us now. Hey there, Whittney. Hey, Ben.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: Hey.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: Hi. Ben, I'm going to let you kick us off. We said lawmakers are finalizing the legislation. Where does it actually stand?

PAVIOUR: Virginia's House and Senate have both passed their own versions of marijuana legalization, but they're trying to reach a compromise this week on key differences between the two. There's a lot of moving parts here, including when selling and buying and possession could all begin, and much of that will be hashed out in the next 24 hours.

KELLY: All right. To this point that we said is a focus for Democrats, making sure recreational marijuana is legalized with equity in mind - Whittney, what exactly does that mean?

EVANS: Well, over the last year, we've seen Democrats in Virginia focus on addressing the legacies of racism, and that's in large part due to calls for criminal justice reform during Black Lives Matter protests. It's also driven by Governor Ralph Northam. It's his last year in office, and he's really trying to restore his reputation. And if you'll remember, reporters found a racist photo in his yearbook two years ago. Here's - here he is in his speech last month.

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RALPH NORTHAM: One of the early leaders of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency was clear that marijuana laws should be written explicitly to target people of color, and so they were.

EVANS: So we've seen how that's played out in Virginia. Black Virginians have - they've been 3 1/2 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana crimes for most of the last decade. At the same time, several national studies have shown that they don't use it any more often than white people. Northam and other Democrats say Virginia can address those disparities by learning from other states, and part of that is also learning how to set up the business side of things.

KELLY: The business side of things - I know you've been digging in on that, Ben. What is Virginia learning on the business side of things from other states?

PAVIOUR: Well, racial disparities were not a focus for the states that legalized early on, and so wealth in the industry flowed to mostly white entrepreneurs and investors. One 2017 survey found that over 80% of marijuana business owners and founders are white. So some states have tried to address the issue in different ways. In New Jersey, they're directing 70% of tax revenues to go toward communities impacted by the war on drugs, which compared to 30% in Virginia. In Illinois, they've tried to set up a special category of so-called social equity licenses. But so far, the state doesn't have a single majority-Black-owned dispensary.

Akele Parnell is a civil rights attorney based in Chicago. He says that in Illinois and other states, medical marijuana dispensaries run by large companies have gotten a big head start. And he says people often compare the process to a marathon.

AKELE PARNELL: At the same time, if you and I are running a marathon and you start five hours ahead of me, you're going to win that race every single time. It doesn't matter what else we do.

PAVIOUR: The big companies argue there's enough room in the market for everyone, including smaller social equity applicants.

KELLY: Let's stay there for a second. What is that exactly, a social equity applicant?

PAVIOUR: Well, states are defining this in different ways. Everyone agrees it's a really tough thing to get right. Illinois' system ended up giving a big preference to veterans, for example. In Virginia, there are plans to include people like Mike Thomas. He's a Black hemp cultivator in Richmond who served some months in jail for marijuana possession as a teenager.

MIKE THOMAS: I just feel like me and people like me deserve to be in this business. You know, I've risked my life for the plant, basically. I've done time for the plant.

PAVIOUR: Lawmakers can't specifically use race-based criteria, but they can give preference to people who served time for marijuana offenses, who graduated from historically Black colleges and universities or who live in communities that have been impacted by the war on drugs. And Virginia's plan calls for those applicants to be prioritized for licenses.

KELLY: What about the criminal justice side of this? What is Virginia doing for people who have been punished for having a drug that is about to be legal, it sounds like, Whittney?

EVANS: Both the House and Senate bills have a framework for throwing out previous marijuana-related offenses, and this has happened to some degree in other states that have legalized. Right now the plans differ on when those records should be expunged and whether they should go away automatically or if people should have to go to court and ask a judge to toss them out. Most experts agree that automating the expungement process helps the largest number of people get a clean slate. But it's also expensive and requires a major technology overhaul in Virginia. The alternative, a petition-based process, ends up being more expensive and time-consuming for individuals.

PAVIOUR: And just another interesting issue here is that just six months ago, Virginia reduced the penalty for marijuana possession to a $25 citation. An analysis we did at VPM showed that Black people are still four times more likely to get cited for possession than white people.

EVANS: Yeah, and this is a sort of real-time example of why it's been so important for the state to focus on these racial equity issues. Another enforcement issue that advocates are worried about is that both bills would create a new open container law for possessing marijuana in a vehicle. They say this tool will be used to keep targeting Black people. And they say it's already illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana, so why create this new punishment? Chelsea Higgs Wise is a local activist here in Richmond, and she heads up the organization Marijuana Justice.

CHELSEA HIGGS WISE: We say, how in the world is this a legalization bill? The majority of police interactions that Virginians have come from traffic stops. So this is deadly. This is dangerous. And this is still criminalizing driving while Black.

KELLY: All right - the voice of one activist there in Richmond ending our reporting from Virginia. Whittney Evans and Ben Paviour of VPM, thanks so much.

PAVIOUR: Thank you.

EVANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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