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Why Virginia legalizing marijuana could be a catalyst for federal legalization

Zack Guzman
·Senior Writer
·4 min read
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Virginia made history this week by becoming the 16th state in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana and the first south of the Mason-Dixon line. The move not only marks a somewhat unexpected win for legal cannabis advocates, but could prove to be an even more important catalyst for changes at the national level given somewhat of a stall in momentum.

Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told Politico he was prepared to move forward with introducing a bill for a first-ever Senate vote to legalize marijuana at a federal level with or without support from President Biden. In fact, Politico noted Schumer began discussing prioritizing marijuana reform even before the topic was broached during the interview. 

"I want to make my arguments to him, as many other advocates will,” Schumer said. “But at some point we're going to move forward, period.“

Perhaps the renewed interest on Schumer's part stems from New York's move to legalize recreational marijuana at the end of March after Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally agreed on criminalization rules and plans to redistribute revenues to communities of color. He has estimated the law change will bring about $350 million in new tax revenue for New York.

Virginia's move to expedite its legalization plans by three years, however, didn't necessarily come from a similar place. While the legal sale of cannabis remains planned for licensed businesses in 2024, Virginians will be able to possess up to one ounce of marijuana beginning in July. A week before legalization in the state was passed, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) expressed his desire to expedite the process by highlighting social inequality and the fact that Black Virginians were three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white Virginians.

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"I personally don’t think we should be arresting or penalizing somebody for something we’re getting ready to legalize,” he said ahead of the final compromise to legalize. 

Of course, Democrats in favor of legalizing marijuana have long touted the social inequalities that have plagued communities of color. Even Vice President Kamala Harris during her time in the Senate spoke out about those issues as part of her reasoning to throw her support behind a bill that would have legalized marijuana at the federal level during her term. But as Denver Mayor Michael Hancock (D-Colo.) told Yahoo Finance this week, it's going to take some convincing to win over Democrats, like Biden, who have historically been opposed to legalizing marijuana. 

"I was not a supporter of legalizing marijuana in 2004, 2005, or 2006, and I'll tell you I've been converted," he said. "President Biden is a friend, and I would take him back to where I was and use my experience quite frankly and just tell him I was there, coming from a family who has had drug abuse in my family, but let me tell you times are different today."

In fact, Schumer cited witnessing the positives that the industry brought to the city of Denver as the spark that began to change his own views to eventually embrace the net positives of legalizing marijuana. 

"There were tax revenues, but people had freedom to do what they wanted to do, as long as they weren't hurting other people," he told Politico. "That's part of what America is about."

Hancock echoed that sentiment, and added that Biden would be able to offer his party and the nation much more by joining in discussions with progressive Democrats pushing the issue ahead of a vote rather than remaining on the sidelines. 

"You'd rather be a leader to help shape the values and the policies, as I did, as opposed to someone who stands outside and just watches and continues to fight what I think is going to be a losing battle," he said. "I think he's in a very unique position to lend leadership and good common values and sense to the legalization of this nationwide."

Virginia passed its marijuana bill with a tie-breaking vote coming from Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax after the state senate voted 20-20, without any Republican support. With a tie breaking vote in the Senate and the fact that Democrats already passed marijuana legalization in the House of Representatives last year, albeit with a stronger majority, it could foreshadow a very close and contested national vote to come.

A Virginia poll from February showed 68% of voters in the state backed legalizing marijuana, which matches the national trends. A November Gallup poll showed a record 68% of Americans support legalizing cannabis, up from 60% in 2016.

Zack Guzman is an anchor for Yahoo Finance Live as well as a senior writer covering entrepreneurship, cannabis, startups, and breaking news at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @zGuz.

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