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Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates address marijuana decriminalization

RICHMOND, Va - As the State Crime Commission studies decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana in Virginia, the two men vying for the Governor's mansion are making their stance known.

There is a difference between decriminalization and legalization.  Decriminalization would mean Virginians would still violate the law by possession marijuana, but jail time would be eliminated as a punishment.

Eight states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and 22 states have voted to decriminalize simple possession.

Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, the Democrat's nominee, penned a letter to the commission Monday voicing his support for decriminalization.  Northam, who has voiced his support in the past, said marijuana enforcement in Virginia costs millions of dollars each year and disproportionately impacts communities of color.

L to R: Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Ed Gillespie (R). Both men will face off in the gubernatorial race.

"Virginia spends $67 million on marijuana enforcement – enough to open up another 13,000 pre-K spots for children. African Americans are nearly 3 times as likely to get arrested for simple possession of marijuana and sentencing guidelines that include jail time can all too often begin a dangerous cycle of recidivism," Northam wrote.

The GOP nominee Ed Gillespie sent a statement to CBS 6 about his take on the decriminalization issue.

"While Ed opposes marijuana legalization or decriminalization, he is exploring reforms to make sure that penalties align appropriately to the offense committed," said Dave Abrams, a spokesperson for Gillespie.

On his campaign page, Libertarian candidate Cliff Hyra said the state should stop enforcing possession laws and legalize marijuana to create tax revenue.

The Crime Commission is continuing to study the issue.  During the 2017 General Assembly Session, multiple decriminalization bills were tabled in House and Senate subcommittees.  Polls by various groups show that a majority of Virginians support lessening the penalty for possession of marijuana.

Crime Commission staffers said they want to hear from Virginians about the pros and cons of decriminalization.  You can email helpful information or materials to vsccinfo@vscc.virginia.gov or by mail.  The deadline for submissions is August 25.  The study's findings will be presented on October 5 at 10 a.m. and is open to the public.