Gov. Northam proposes legalizing marijuana, abolishing death penalty to General Assembly

By Zach Armstrong

PETERSBURG, Va -- As the 2021 session began for the Virginia General Assembly, Gov. Northam proposed legislation that would legalize marijuana and end practicing the death penalty in the commonwealth.

If Northam’s efforts towards these issues are succesful, it would make Virginia the first Southern state to both end capital punishment and legalize cannabis.

“I’ve felt strongly about this for a long time,” the governor said to the Richmond-Times Dispatch referring to the death penalty. “We’ve been doing so much good work on equity, especially criminal justice reform, and we have the majority in the House and the Senate.”

Virginia has conducted 113 executions since 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume and has conducted a total of nearly 1,300 executions in the state since 1608 making it the most in the country, although no one has been sentenced to death in Virginia since 2011 or executed since 2017.

If the bill becomes law, the last two remaining men on death row in the state will have their sentences changed to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

As of January of 2020, 33 states either abolished the death penalty or haven’t conduceted any executions in the past decade, according to the American Bar Association.

According to the Richmond-Times Dispatch, Del. Mike Mullin (D-Newport News) intends to carry a bill ending the death penalty in the state in the House while Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) and Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin County) will carry an identical bill in the Senate.

Northam’s administration also unveiled legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana in Virginia, proposing a 21% state tax on the drug and a licensing program for people disproportionately affected by the enforcement of marijuana laws. The bill would also include automatic expungements for many marijuana-related offenses from criminal records.

“It’s time to join 16 other states and make marijuana legal,” Northam said during his State of the Commonwealth Address. “Marijuana has become a cash crop that rivals tobacco even right here in Virginia, but as an illegal crop, it makes no money for Virginia. By legalizing and taxing it, we can use the revenue to help communities most disproportionately impacted by the inequities in our laws.”

According to an outline of the legislation, Marijuana sales would begin on New Years Day of 2023.

Purchasers would have to be at least 21 years old and present a valid photo ID. Sales would be limited to 28 grams and products would be packaged in child-safe packaging with warning labels while advertisers would be discouraged from attracting interest among youth. All sales would be taxed at an overall rate of around 30%.

“Equitable marijuana legalization is an important step towards justice in the commonwealth,” House Majority Leader Charniele Herring said to the Richmond-Times Dispatch. “For far too long, marijuana laws have targeted Black and brown communities and enough is enough.”