Illinois to Legalize Recreational Pot: Implications for Virginia

Legal tokin’ in the Land of Lincoln. Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign Illinois’ recreational marijuana legalization bill tomorrow. Illinois, America’s sixth most populous state, will become the 11th state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. The District of Columbia has also legalized the possession of ganja. This has implications for Virginia.

First, Illinois is the first state to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana via the state legislature. Vermont’s legislature legalized the possession but not the sale of marijuana. All other states came to legalization via citizen led ballot initiatives. Since the Virginia Constitution has no provision for citizen-led ballot initiatives, the General Assembly would have to follow in the footsteps of the Illinois legislature to legalize marijuana in the Old Dominion. Illinois has proven this is possible. The second implication is the looming encirclement of Virginia by states with legalized recreational marijuana. The closer legal pot dispensaries get to Virginia the harder it will be for Virginia to stop cross border marijuana flows.

Pritzker’s Pro Pot Pledge. Legal pot in Illinois was no grassroots uprising. Pritzker’s winning gubernatorial campaign over incumbent Republican Bruce Rauner featured a clear message from Pritzker … elect me and I’ll get recreational marijuana legalized. Rauner was equally clear … elect me and recreational marijuana will remain illegal. Pritzker won, relegating Rauner to the political hemp heap. This may be a harbinger of things to come in Virginia where we elect a new governor every four years. According to polls 76% of Virginians favor marijuana decriminalization (CNU, 2/2018) and 59% favor legalization (Quinnipiac, 4/2017). The difference in a close governor’s race could easily hinge on the decriminalization/legalization question. In fact, Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring recently called for legalization. Herring is an announced candidate for Virginia governor in the 2021 election. Legalization could also benefit candidate Herring by allowing him to reframe his blackface controversy as a more understandable exploding bong mishap if the political winds seem to be blowing in favor of a more tolerant view of youthful marijuana use.

But, but, but … the Republicans. Historically, Virginia Republicans have thwarted attempts at marijuana reform. Despite 76% of Virginians favoring the decriminalization of marijuana, General Assembly Republicans killed a 2019 bill to do that just that. These Republicans adopted the cowardly approach of killing the bill in sub-committee rather than letting the full committee and/or the full legislature vote on the matter. I don’t have the time or the crayons required to explain to Virginia Republicans why using subterfuge to thwart the will of 76% of their constituents is a bad idea. I’m guessing they will learn that lesson for themselves this November when they become the minority party. However, even if they manage to hold on in 2019 they will find it very hard to kill marijuana reform legislation in sub-committee once it becomes an issue in the 2021 governor’s race. Ask former Illinois Republican governor Bruce Rauner how opposing marijuana reform worked for him.

Virginia is being surrounded, again. Attempting to rally behind lost causes is a hallmark of the plantation class that runs Virginia. From ruining farmland by over planting tobacco centuries ago to allowing special interests to stuff money into our legislators’ pockets today … Virginia is uniquely slow to allow reality to intrude on its bourbon and branch water philosophy. While our politicians continue to run headlong into the 1960s the rest of America evolves and moves on.

Tomorrow it’s Illinois. This November a citizen initiated referendum goes on the ballot in Ohio to legalize recreational marijuana. It will pass. In 2020 New York and New Jersey are expected to pass similar laws. Delaware and Maryland have decriminalized marijuana possession. Maryland’s legalization bill never came to a vote in the 2019 session but Delaware’s House of Representatives is poised to vote on a legalization bill now that the bill passed the House Revenue and Finance Committee with an 8 – 3 majority (June 5).  North Carolina enacted a law in 1977 to stop jailing those who possess small amounts of marijuana. In Virginia first-time offenders carrying even less than half an ounce still can face 30 days in jail and a $500 fine; for subsequent offenses, you’re looking at a year in prison and a $2,500 fine. African-Americans in Virginia are disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession. And how is Virginia’s war on pot going? Not well. “Only about 13,000 individuals were arrested for marijuana possession in 2003 in Virginia. That amount grew by some 115 percent by 2017 with nearly 28,000 people facing convictions for small amounts of cannabis.”

We’ve sprung a leak. Meanwhile, there is more and more leakage. While Virginia’s efforts to combat marijuana have been a dismal failure for decades, those efforts are becoming less effective by the day. For example, D.C. has adopted a limbo land regulation whereby it’s legal to possess marijuana but not to sell it. So, Virginians working in D.C. can’t get the stuff and bring it home via the Metro, right? Not quite. Canamelo is a D.C.- based cannabis delivery service that accepts “donations” for transferred pot. Getting Foreman Farm Blunts ($45 donation) or Fruity Pebble Treats ($10 donation) is just a text message away for the reefer-starved Virginian working in the District. I guess we can take some solace in this. Instead of Virginia’s marijuana prohibition funding Mexican drug cartels it’s now benefiting DC-based entrepreneurs.

Don’t bogart that summary, my friend. Virginia’s marijuana prohibition is ineffective in curtailing the use of marijuana. It creates expensive enforcement actions. It taints young people with lifelong criminal records for simple possession. It generates racist outcomes. It eschews tax money for the state in favor of profits for drug cartels or funding for out of state legal sellers  It denies rural Virginia the opportunity to participate in a valuable cash crop. In other words, it’s a perfect example of The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond at work. A complete disaster.

— Don Rippert