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Black-led Marijuana Advocacy Group Left Out of Legalization Bill Signing

Man holding binder
Gov. Ralph Northam holds up a bill legalizing recreational marijuana after signing it. (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM News)

Virginia became the first Southern state to legalize recreational marijuana on Wednesday. Gov. Ralph Northam held a bill signing ceremony, but one key advocacy group says they were left out of the event.

Chelsea Higgs Wise is the executive director of Marijuana Justice. She says her organization’s efforts were critical in passing marijuana legalization. Since 2019, the group has been central to creating coalitions of local nonprofits to advocate for a focus on social equity in marijuana reform.

Wise says Marijuana Justice was also key in encouraging lawmakers to shift the legalization date from 2024 to 2021. She says her coalition brought legislators’ attention to the fact that marijuana possession penalties continued to be enforced disproportionately against Black Virginians after it was decriminalized.

“It was our advocacy specifically that had told them that decriminalization was not going to be enough,” Wise said. “And so the fact that [legalization] is happening on July 1, this summer, is because of the work of Marijuana Justice and the Legalize It Right Coalition.”

Woman speaks into megaphone
Chelsea Higgs Wise speaks at a protest on June 2, 2020. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

But earlier this week, Marijuana Justice did not receive an invitation to the bill-signing ceremony. Wise says the governor’s office told her the guest list was already too long on Tuesday.

“It was heartbreaking to realize that this was not an oversight,” she said. “Here we are again, left on the sideline, to not be included in this historic bill that was so much to our making.”

After the ceremony, Northam told VPM the group was not included in the event due to COVID-19 restrictions. He cited the weather, since the event moved indoors shortly after it began to rain.

“We’d love to have this room packed. We’re still in the middle of the pandemic, so we want to be safe and responsible,” the governor said. “At the end of the day, we want to thank all the activists. We wish they were here, but it’s not possible because of the weather, but we appreciate all their input.”

The governor’s office made the decision to move the event indoors Wednesday, shortly before the ceremony began. Wise says her group was denied the opportunity to participate in the ceremony on Tuesday.

One advocate shared remarks before the bill signing: Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of the Virginia chapter of NORML. Other organizations that had been invited, such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, skipped the ceremony in solidarity with Marijuana Justice.

In a statement, the ACLU of Virginia said the organization, along with other members of a mairjuana reform coalition, skipped the event because Wise’s exclusion represented a member of the community being denied “a seat at the table.”

“We are deeply disappointed that a day meant to celebrate these historic moves was marred by Marijuana Justice being the only coalition member not invited to the signing ceremony. From the beginning, Marijuana Justice has been instrumental in expanding our coalition’s ability to center the voices of directly impacted people in the policymaking process,” the statement said.

Wise says despite not being invited to attend the ceremony, she still sees the passage of the marijuana legalization bill as cause for celebration.

“We were hoping to celebrate this with the commonwealth with all of the folks that worked hard on this bill, and still say there is more work to do,” Wise said. “This is progress for the people. The bill signing is not the actual win, but what this relief to Black people on policing will feel as we work harder to liberate our people.”

The new law, which takes effect July 1 of this year, makes it legal for adults over the age of 21 to possess up to one ounce of marijuana for recreational use. The law also permits Virginia adults to grow up to four marijuana plants.

The law also calls for 30% of tax revenue from marijuana sales to compensate communities impacted by the War on Drugs. Another 40% of Virginia’s revenues will go toward early childhood education, 25% will go toward substance abuse treatment and prevention, with the remainder funding public health programs.