Racism, COVID19 and Marijuana Legalization in Virginia

By DJ Rippert

Unintended consequences.  Newspapers, websites and Bacon’s Rebellion have been full of articles describing and debating the COVID-19 pandemic and the police killing of George Floyd with the attendant protests. First-order consequences of these events have been widely discussed. However, as we enter into the “new normal” a number of secondary and tertiary questions arise. One such question pertains to the legalization of recreational marijuana in Virginia. My opinion is that both the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic fallout and the new sense of urgency around racial justice should compel our state government to accelerate the legalization of adult use marijuana.

The COVID19 lockdown recession. The sudden stop to Virginia’s economy has resulted in predictable fiscal turmoil. While one can debate whether the lockdown was too restrictive, not sufficiently restrictive, too long or too short there can be no debate that closing large parts of the economy has caused deep financial issues. The US economy is in recession. Some will say that Virginia will be insulated from the worst of that recession by the flow of federal dollars through the state. To that I’d reply – “don’t be naive, Nancy” … stories of the impact on small businesses are being reported across the state. It should be obvious to everybody that Virginia faces a fiscal winter even if there is no second wave of Coronavirus this actual winter.

Does sand remove shoe polish? From a fiscal recovery perspective Ralph Northam is acting like an ostrich with its head in the sand. Having largely bumbled his way through the health care response to COVID-19 Northam has followed a bumpy but essentially status quo approach to reopening. Less aggressive than neighboring Tennessee but more aggressive than Maryland  Yet our governor seems to have little to say about the looming financial crisisNorm Leahy, writing an opinion piece in the Washington Post titled, “Governor Northam’s forgotten epidemic: Virginia’s unemployed” starts to put the long- term economic costs of closing into perspective.

When Northam does address Virginia’s economy he is surprisingly upbeat. Speaking in May, Northam acknowledged that Virginia’s revenues (almost exclusively from taxes) came in $700M under budget in April but predicted only a shortfall of $1B by the end of June. Finance chief Aubrey Layne backstopped Northam saying, “We still have quite a few businesses operating and paying their employees, I think a lot of that has to do with the strength of the economy.” This optimism seems hard to fathom given the number of economists who saw Virginia’s recovery from the Great Recession as sluggish. We limped out of the last recession but we’ll come roaring out of this one?

Woke tokeThe facts with regard to racism and marijuana law enforcement. are clear. While black Americans are as equally likely to partake in using marijuana as white Americans, they are vastly more likely to be arrested for doing so.  Recent analysis in Virginia shows the Old Dominion is no exception to this rule.  This, in large part, caused the General Assembly to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in the last session. Case closed, discrimination over? Sadly, data from Maryland (where marijuana possession was decriminalized in 2014) casts doubt on the hope that decriminalization alone will provide equity. Years after decriminalization black residents of Maryland are still bearing a disproportionate level of marijuana enforcement pain.  Is there any real reason to believe that Virginia’s experience will be different than Maryland’s?

A win – win? I have no doubt that using marijuana is harmful to one’s health. So is consuming alcohol, tobacco, nicotine through vaping and pounder bags of Mike & Ike candy. I also have no doubt that marijuana is being consumed in quantity in Virginia and will continue to be consumed in quantity regardless of its legal status. Finally, I have no doubt that significant potential tax revenue is being lost to the criminal element who produce and distribute weed illegally in Virginia.

So, what’s a woke and broke governor with a woke and broke legislative majority to do? As Peter Tosh once sang, “Legalize It!”

Let’s stipulate that a disproportionate amount of legal pain from the so-called War on Drugs in Virginia fell upon black Virginians. Let’s reasonably assume that the worst of the COVID-19 lockdown fallout in Virginia will harm rural and small town Virginians. Let’s further assume that Northam and Layne’s rosy predictions for Virginia’s economic recovery are … well … since this is a family- oriented blog … unrealistic. The General Assembly needs to legalize recreational marijuana in Virginia with specified “grow zones” in impoverished rural areas along with a disproportionate share of dispensary licenses given to black Virginians. Oh, and for you conservatives out there … the taxes from the dope should give you hope. Hope that the inevitable tax increases coming from our state government will be somewhat lower if we divert marijuana revenue from drug cartels to working Virginians with taxes going to Richmond.

Remember, it’s woke to let Virginia toke and we’ll be less broke.