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Poll Finds Majority of Virginians Support Marijuana Legalization

Hemp CBD products for sale at Elwood Thompson's grocery store in Richmond.
Hemp CBD products for sale at Elwood Thompson's grocery store in Richmond. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A new poll from the University of Mary Washington shows 61 percent of Virginians back the legalization of marijuana, up from 39 percent in a similar poll taken in 2017.

“The latest Mary Washington survey demonstrates, to quote Bob Dylan, ‘The times they are a-changin’ here in the Old Dominion,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.

The poll of over 1,000 Virginians comes as the state begins rolling out a medical marijuana program.

Virginia’s first five medical cannabis dispensaries will begin operating next year. Patients must register with the Board of Pharmacy for what’s known as an affirmative defense -- a kind of doctor’s note certifying to police that the patient is eligible to carry cannabis for treatment.

But possessing marijuana is technically still illegal under state code, even if you’re a patient.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, who heads the marijuana advocacy group Virginia NORML, says the General Assembly is likely to consider decriminalizing before it tackles legalization. The legislature considered several bills earlier this year that would reduce penalties for marijuana possession to a fine, including ones backed by Gov. Ralph Northam.

“If Democrats were to take the majority, then there may be a pathway open for more meaningful, particularly criminal justice-related bills to succeed,” Pedini said.

Republican lawmakers have signalled they want to move cautiously when it comes to marijuana legislation. Committees controlled by conservatives tabled a slew of decriminalization bills last year with minimal debate among lawmakers.

One concern is how the state would punish people who drive under the influence. Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Stafford) worried that a decriminalization bill from Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) would rack up charges on future offenders who were prosecuted for driving under the influence of cannabis.  

“My concern is that you can be prosecuted for both offenses, and now you’ve got two class one misdemeanors,” Sen. Stuart said in a committee hearing in January.

Congress may take action before the General Assembly does. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have introduced legislation that would loosen federal laws on marijuana as Richmond-based Altria has made major investments in the sector.

Pedini says she expects a bill to pass in the next two to three years, but worries that the federal legislation could supersede state action, locking Virginia growers out of regulatory conversations about legalization.

“Virginia’s farmers [and] small businesses might not be so fortunate when it comes to what regulatory model is implemented under that at the state level if we haven’t taken steps in advance,” Pedini said.