A bill that would decriminalize marijuana in Virginia edged forward this week when the Senate Judiciary Committee referred it to a subcommittee.

HB 1507 seeks to amend the Code of Virginia to remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances that can lead to prosecution. It has a companion bill called SB 2, which has also been debated in Senate committees this week.

The bills are identical and they form the first step in a broader push towards full legalization.

The subcommittee is likely to amend HB 1507 before sending it back to the full panel for a vote. If successful it can continue on the long path towards becoming enshrined in law, and backers believe they can get it across the finish line during the current legislative session.

Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy has sponsored the bill and she urged supporters to “lean on your legislators” and make them aware of the efforts to legalize cannabis.

A group of marijuana advocates representing American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Marijuana Justice, and RISE for Youth dressed in black and held a rally at the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial to voice their support of marijuana legalization on Thursday.

They said their attire was designed to show solidarity with “the black and brown bodies that have been criminalized for decades”. Analysis shows that around 20,000 Virginians were convicted of marijuana possession in 2018 and more than half of them were African American.

African Americans make up just 19% of the population in Virginia, but they accounted for 49% of prosecutions for marijuana possession and 51% of all defendants found guilty.

Attorney General Mark Herring is spearheading the legalization movement in Virginia and he hosted a cannabis summit in Richmond last weekend in order to educate legislators on the subject.

He estimates that the state spends $81 million enforcing cannabis laws on an annual basis. Herring wants to see that money diverted towards bolstering public services, while tax revenue would also boost the state’s coffers and help eradicate the illicit market.

The push towards decriminalization and then legalization in Virginia mirrors a trend that is sweeping the nation. A new bill filed by state Rep. Rick Staples of Knoxville this week aims to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Staples also feels that decriminalization would be a start, and that the state should take a far more liberal approach to “a plant that’s proven medicinal benefits”.

Vermont’s governor is also apparently open to legalizing adult-use cannabis this year. So far 11 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation permitting recreational use, and that number is likely to increase this year.

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