Opinion by Terry McAuliffe and Don Scott
Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, served as Virginia governor from 2014 to 2018. Don Scott, a Democrat, represents Portsmouth in the Virginia House of Delegates.
This has been a year full of reckonings that have prompted our society to take a close look in the mirror and begin to really tackle inequalities in all aspects of our lives. It has brought to the forefront issues that are, and have been, disproportionately hurting communities of color for generations. We have had reckonings over systemic racism, police brutality and health disparities for communities of color. If we are going to create and sustain meaningful change, we need to act big and be bold. We can’t tinker around the edges and act as though we are being transformative. One way to do this is to finally fully legalize marijuana and recognize it for what it is: a civil rights issue.
Why is it a civil rights issue? For too long, marijuana laws have been disproportionately enforced in Black and brown communities. Disguised under the thin veil of social policy, these laws have not been applied equally or fairly. They became part of the failed “war on drugs” — the same one that went after communities of color at higher rates than their White counterparts even though there is no evidence to suggest communities of color use these substances at higher rates.
As a result, Black and Latino Virginians have been disproportionately affected by the criminalization of marijuana. Black Virginians are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested and 3.9 times more likely to be convicted of marijuana-related offenses. Similarly, Latinos are also more likely to be arrested for marijuana than their White counterparts. All of this despite research indicating similar rates of marijuana use by Black and White Virginians.
Thanks to the work we did in Virginia to elect Democratic majorities in the General Assembly, we were able to pass a law decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana while we studied legalization. This was a great step, but it’s important to understand that historic inequities live on and can’t be eliminated completely. They don’t end with an arrest, a dismissal or a conviction, or at the end of a probation sentence. A marijuana charge has a litany of effects that have handicapped Virginians and their families for generations. Employment, housing and education can all be on the line for folks who are charged with marijuana offenses until we take the necessary steps to legalize it. We need to be bold.
As we continue discussing legalizing adult-use marijuana, equity must be at the forefront of the conversation. It is essential that communities and populations that have been the most affected by criminalization and enforcement of marijuana are front of mind, involved in the conversation and given meaningful opportunities to benefit from this effort. That means we have to put in the work and do this the right way, not the easiest or the fastest way. This includes expunging prior convictions for possession of marijuana and eliminating barriers to education and employment so that Virginians can get back to being active participants in our society.
We also have to structure regulations in a way that promotes minority ownership and employment opportunities in this industry. In other states that have legalized marijuana, most business owners are White and there remain few Black-owned marijuana businesses. Let’s be clear: A system that was used to disproportionately keep Black and brown communities oppressed cannot be used to continue to disproportionately benefit White people in a new commercial industry. There needs to be equitable access for all Virginians to join this new industry and have equal access to benefit from it. We need to make a conscious and purposeful investment in minority-owned businesses in the marijuana industry. We have to think big.
In addition to facilitating minority ownership and employment, we have to be intentional about how we use the generated revenue. Again, equity must be at the forefront of this conversation. We know this industry is going to generate hundreds of millions of dollars, and it would be easy to pump all of this money back into the general fund. However, the revenue must be invested back into communities that have been affected the most to tackle the inequities they’ve faced, whether in criminal justice or education.
There is no question marijuana needs to be legalized in Virginia. But we do need to challenge ourselves to do what is right, not what is easy. If we want to finally implement real criminal justice reform, we have to be bold, and this is a great place to start. We owe it to generations of Virginians who were targeted because of the color of their skin or the neighborhoods they lived in. And we owe it to generations in the future. Let’s get it done.