Virginia Attorney General Sparks Up Conversation on Legalizing Recreational Marijuana

By Jeff Raines

Capital News Service

RICHMOND –Attorney General Mark Herring tweeted his support for the legalization of recreational marijuana in Virginia Tuesday night. 

“Virginians know we can do better. It’s time to move toward legal, regulated adult use,” Herring said in his retweet of a study that revealed more than half of Virginians agree with him. 

The study, published by the University of Mary Washington last month, showed that 61% of Virginians support legalization of recreational marijuana, while 34% oppose legalization. The remaining respondents said they were uncertain.

 This is a noticeable uptick from a UMW study conducted in 2017 that showed 39% of Virginians supported legalizing marijuana for personal use. The 2017 question was worded differently, asking if marijuana should be legalized in general, for personal or medical use, or remain illegal. A plurality said medical marijuana should be legal and the rest (17%) were opposed to legalization. 

Recreational use of marijuana is becoming an increasingly popular issue for Virginia politicians as they go into the November State Senate elections and the upcoming 2021 gubernatorial elections. 

Stephen Farnsworth, a UMW political science professor, said he believes legalization is several years away, but the timeline could change if a Democratic majority is elected in November. Eighty percent of the Commonwealth’s youth (25 and under) are in favor of recreational marijuana, Farnsworth said. “Winning the support of younger voters can be key.” 

Herring, a candidate in the 2021 gubernatorial elections, has long voiced his support for decriminalization of marijuana. 

Micheal Kelly, director of communications for Herring, said in an email the attorney general believes “Virginia needs to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, take action to address past convictions, and a move towards legal and regulated adult use in Virginia.”

Almost all marijuana-related arrests last year (90%) were for possession alone, and arrests for marijuana possession have increased 115% from 2003 to 2017, according to a press release from the attorney general’s office. First time marijuana convictions in Virginia have risen 53% from 2008 to 2017, with enforcement costs estimated to be nearly $81 million a year.