In April of last year, Ramone Brown waited with anticipation for the results of a bill that would make marijuana legal in Virginia. Sitting in his prison cell going on 3 years, he wondered if this would be his chance to be reunited with his family sooner.
Legalization passed, but nothing changed for Ramone. Virginia legislators admitted that they ran out of time to discuss re-sentencing in the legislation. So folks who were jailed for something that would soon be made legal were left in cages for at least another year.
While legalizing marijuana saves 20,000 Virginians from having to get involved with our incarceration system a year, 560 people in Virginia like Ramone remain imprisoned for the possession or sale of marijuana.
Virginia legislators are now rushing to start legislation for marijuana sales in 2023, in order to quickly pocket the estimated $31 to $62 million in revenue expected in the first full year of sales. They anticipate this economic boon will grow to between $154-$308 million per year.
Meanwhile, there has been little movement on the re-sentencing effort. My organization, Marijuana Justice, along with other criminal justice and equity advocates continue to push for that same energy to urgently release and re-sentence our people.
In the Virginia Senate, there is a proposal that would allow two very different pathways to liberation for those still incarcerated for cannabis. Marijuana Justice and a national partner presented to the Virginia Cannabis Oversight Committee the most meaningful ways to get people home as well as the hundreds of people who would benefit from resentencing.
There are 10 people identified that are incarcerated for solely marijuana, according to the Department of Corrections. The resentencing proposal would empower these 10 people to be identified and scheduled for a hearing by November 2022, along with those that may be in local jails and also on community supervision due marijuana and marijuana only.
People incarcerated for a felony conviction that had a sentence enhanced because of a marijuana offense would be eligible for parole and a hearing scheduled by July 2023.
Unfortunately, this proposal is set to go through a larger legalization proposal that is not supported by the state’s new conservative administration and house of delegates. So it’s likely to get held up again.
Last year, we saw that re-sentencing was left behind in favor of commercial interests. But while their focus is on legislating consumer needs, they cannot ignore the needs of those still trying to survive as casualties in the War on Drugs.
This is not just a problem in Virginia. Nationally, there are no states that we have identified that have completed their re-sentencing process for cannabis. As the first state to legalize possession in the U.S. South, we have the chance to set an example for the rest of the country by putting freedom and family reunification over cannabis capitalism. We should put our loved ones over party lines.
The data shows that since the 1990’s, Virginia tripled down on marijuana enforcement, disproportionately targeting Black virginia residents four times more than white people. The Virginia legislature has yet to invest in the data to expose the racial impact on felony marijuana arrests and convictions, but we are sure that the people in need of being set free are overwhelmingly our Black and brown loved ones.
When marijuana was legalized in our state, many Virginia cannabis consumers celebrated that possessing up to an ounce was legal and up to a pound was only a $25 ticket. But for Ramone, what is now only a $25 ticket is what put two extra years between him and his two kids that are quickly growing up. We need to pass the resentencing bill for the hundreds of families like Ramone’s who were left behind to suffer
Chelsea Higgs Wise is the Executive Director of Marijuana Justice and lead CannaJustice coalition organizer on the campaign to legalize simple possession in Virginia in 2021.