Virginia’s new adult use laws do not include the release of those incarcerated for pot

If you’re looking for the most hypocritical outcome of possible cannabis legalization, Virginia’s new regulation is the place for you. As the Charlottesville, Virginia Mercury newspaper pointed out, the legalization bill signed last Wednesday does not provide a clear path to freedom for people currently in jail, nor does it reduce penalties for an asset that is now legal.

A provision previously viewed as re-convicting hearings against individuals jailed for crimes related to cannabis allegedly failed to effect the final cut in legislation. Legislators have reportedly been too busy discussing cannabis industry regulations to prioritize the human rights of those affected by the war on drugs.

The Virginia Mercury reports that the Democrats who worked on the legislation “were unable to reach an agreement on a re-conviction due to the complexity of the problem coupled with the last-minute nature of the changes that accelerated legalization this summer “.

Figures from the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission indicate that the number of people left out to dry as a result of this omission is significant. Between July 2018 and 2020, 500 people were sentenced to prison terms for distributing more than half an ounce and less than five pounds of cannabis. About 175 were sentenced to an average of 1.7 years in prison. About 23 people were detained for growing large quantities of cannabis in the state over the same period.

Governor Ralph Northam says a delay for the freedom of these Virginians is to be expected. “We didn’t cross the line this year, but we have a meeting in 2022,” says Northam. “I suspect this will be a problem that is on the table.”

The Virginia bill, originally introduced, included re-conviction hearings of all those incarcerated for crimes related to cannabis, except those involving the sale to a child or more than five pounds of the drug. In particular, it allowed the judges to “consider circumstances in the mitigation of the crime, including legalizing marijuana”.

According to Mercury, House and Senate lawmakers, “they spent almost no time discussing it during the session, but focused on provisions about how marijuana would ultimately be sold, regulated, and taxed.”

“The discussion didn’t take place until the end of our talks, and at that point we didn’t really have much time to look into it,” said State Senator Scott Surovell.

“Given that it hasn’t really been publicly scrutinized very carefully, I think there have been concerns about pulling the trigger without knowing the full implications,” he continued.

Re-conviction hearings are one of the most time-consuming ways to release cannabis prisoners once a jurisdiction has legalized the drug. The New York Legalization Act, passed within days after Virginia, gives those currently incarcerated immediate right to petition.

Not all state lawmakers will allow potentially innocent people to sit in jail for another year.

“That was urgent for me because now we’re going to be in a situation where people are still in jail for exactly what we’ve already legalized,” said one of the law’s co-sponsors Senator Louise Lucas. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“How ‘complicated and expensive’ is it to keep these people incarcerated for a substance that the state has decided is now legal?” asked Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia’s Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law.

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