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Advocates Say Marijuana Legalization Should Come With Reparations

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Del. Lee Carter (D-Manassas) hopes the state uses potential revenue from marijuana legalization to provide reparations to Virginia's Black and brown communities. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

After Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced last week that he will push the state to legalize recreational marijuana, one representative is proposing any new revenue be used for reparations to Black and brown communities.

Del. Lee Carter, a self-styled socialist from Manassas, issued a statement Monday morning, saying every penny from a state tax on marijuana should go back into minority communities. The Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission, the legislature’s research arm, released a 204-page report on marijuana legalization last week. The report said legalization could generate up to $300 million per year in tax revenue. It also highlighted the fact that Black Virginians are more than three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than white Virginians, despite using the drug at the same rate.

Carter said he sees legalization as a prime opportunity to discuss atonement for not only Slavery and Jim Crow, but also the disproportionate impact of the war on drugs had on Black people.

“We can begin to talk about reparations in a way that gets away from the conversations that have derailed reparations plans in the past,” he said. “It’s always ‘Where is that money going to come from?’”

Carter said his proposal is not radical, but is in line with what legalization advocates have already been pushing for. 

The Virginia-based group Marijuana Justice worked with lawmakers during the 2019 General Assembly session to get the JLARC study done. They also advocated for the study to include suggestions for investments that increase economic and racial equity.

Among the proposals JLARC came up with were diverting new tax revenue to community non-profits or community reinvestment grants.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, said reparations alone will not  repair the harm done by the war on drugs. Her organization is also pushing for the state to fund record expungement for people with past marijuana convictions.

Higgs said that as Virginia begins to tell a fuller story of its complicity with the slave trade, legalization provides an opportunity to “put our money where our mouth is.”

“Virginia is in a perfectly placed position as we go to legalize and start this commercial market, to reinvest specifically back into the communities that have been hurt not just by the drug war, but by redlining, by annexation, by Jim Crow and by the forty acres and a mule that were never given after emancipation as well.”

In his statements last week, Northam also backed some of these restorative approaches to legalization.

“I think we can agree marijuana laws have been based originally in discrimination,” he said. “Undoing the harms means things like social equity licenses, access to capital, community reinvestment and sealing or expunging the records of people's prior records.”

In it’s report, JLARC highlighted three states - Massachusetts, Michigan and Illinois - that made social equity part of their legalization efforts from the beginning. The report said programs in those states range from reducing licensing fees for minority applicants to providing loans to industry start ups. 

If Virginia legalizes recreational marijuana in the upcoming General Assembly session, it would be the first state in the South to do so.