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Virginia Democrat, Libertarian gubernatorial primary candidates win highest marks on marijuana policies by national advocacy group

This article originally appeared in RVA Magazine on May 24, 2017. An archive link is here.

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The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has released a report card for the marijuana policies of the six candidates running in the 2017 Virginia race for governor. The report gave each politician a letter grade, similar to the report cards given out by the advocacy groups. MPP wrote a survey of three questions which was sent to each candidate, who were then scored based on their responses (or lack thereof).

The questions were:

Whether to reduce the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana to a reasonable civil fine;

Whether Virginia should establish a program allowing seriously ill patients with qualifying conditions to consume medical marijuana with the permission of their physicians;

and

whether they support creating a reasonable system for taxing and regulating marijuana production and sales for legal use by adults 21 years of age and older in Virginia.

Republican Ed Gillespie earned a D, the lowest grade. Libertarian Cliff Hyra, on the other hand, scored the highest grade of A+.

The Democratic candidates, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam and former Congressman Tom Perriello both support the decriminalization of marijuana, earning them a B and an A-, respectively.

MPP appreciated Northam’s support for “decriminalization and the establishment of a comprehensive medical marijuana program,” but his grade was lowered to a B for not saying what his position on the adult use of cannabis is, as well as not replying to the survey.

Perriello was the only candidate out of all six to answer all of the questions provided. In response to question one, he answered in the affirmative, saying that “the decades old war on drugs has failed.” He denounced “racially biased drug laws,” and declared that “We have to fix our broken criminal justice system and put a stop to the school-to-prison pipeline and pattern of ruining lives over non-violent marijuana possession.”

Perriello answered question two with a yes, as well. He said that “Virginia must join the majority of jurisdictions” by creating a medical marijuana program. He supported this statement by referencing the benefits of medical marijuana use. Perriello answered question three by claiming that he would eventually support a tax on marijuana use by adults 21 and older, citing the success of Colorado’s tax on recreational marijuana.

On the republican side, Gillespie – the party’s current front runner – performed the most poorly out of the three, receiving a D for opposing “decriminalization and adult-use,” as well as having an unknown stance on medical usage. He did not answer the survey.

Stewart, the Chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, received a B for telling “an MPP staffer that he supports decriminalization and medical marijuana,” but having an unknown policy towards adult use. He, too, did not reply to the survey.

Wagner, who serves in the seventh district in the Virginia Senate, was given a B for the same reasons as Stewart.

The only Libertarian candidate in the race, Mechanicsville lawyer Cliff Hyra, was the conly candidate to receive an A+ for his responses. He threw his weight behind “decriminalization, the establishment of a medical marijuana program, and allowing responsible adults age 21 and older to consume cannabis,” according to MPP.

He responded to MPP’s survey, but not with as much detail as Perriello did. Hyra’s small-government colors show in his statement to MPP:

“A medical marijuana program should be unnecessary because I support full legalization, however I would support a medical marijuana program as a second-best alternative,” wrote Hyra. “Virginia must end its unjust and counterproductive prohibition on marijuana.”

The fact that Hyra was the only candidate to receive an A+ from MPP may raise an eyebrow, especially since his response was much less detailed than the one given by Perriello. He does not state what his potential medical marijuana program would look like, or how Virginia would end its prohibition stance on the drug.

MPP is the largest non-profit organization working to solely address marijuana policies, and most of the money donated by MPP 2016 election cycle went to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ profile on the organization. However, during all of the other election cycles, they have donated primarily to Democrats.

The more positive views of marijuana reform held by the Democrats and Hyra, however, do not reflect the policies endorsed by the Virginia legislature. While some reform bills have been passed, most legislation on the topic has been killed, as can be seen in the regular sessions from this year, 2016 and 2015, just to address the past few years.

Sentences for first time possession have been reduced in the past.

However, if history is any indicator, then reform minded politicians will have their work cut out for them, but beyond the political value of legalization, a 2016 study by VCU’s CNS program found Black people in Virginia continue to face higher arrest rates for possession vs. their white peers – if any candidate promises to work towards racial and economic equality, legalization could be seen as one way to reduce arrest rates across the state.

Words by David Pettyjohn

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