3 questions with Attorney General Mark Herring at his cannabis summit

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia lawmakers who attended a cannabis summit convened by Attorney General Mark Herring on Wednesday called it remarkable that such an event was even taking place on Capitol Square.

“This is an extraordinary day,” said Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, a founding member of the newly formed Cannabis Caucus. “I for one can not imagine even five years ago that we would be having this conversation in this building hosted by none other than the attorney general of Virginia.”

Democrats are widely expected to decriminalize marijuana after winning majorities last month in the House of Delegates and Senate. The move would downgrade possession charges from criminal offenses to infractions akin to traffic tickets.

We caught up with Herring as the event kicked off.

What are you hoping to accomplish today?

Herring: I’ve brought a lot of policy experts together, officials from other states who have taken the steps to decriminalize and legalize so that we can hear how they’ve been able to do it successfully. People can ask questions and get their questions answered and begin to really put a plan together.

I think the approach that we need to take is first to decriminalize possession of small amounts with marijuana and address past convictions and I hope to put Virginia on a path toward legal and regulated adult use.

What’s the earliest you think it would be wise for Virginia to legalize recreational marijuana?

I think we should do it as quickly as we can but of course do it in a thoughtful and prudent way. There are questions that we need to look at and answer and that’s what today is all about — an opportunity to come together, ask questions, to learn and to put Virginia on a path toward legal and regulated adult use.

Is it something you could see happening within the two years we know Democrats will control all levers of government in Richmond?

I think we have a real opportunity right now. I’ve been calling for major reform of our cannabis laws in Virginia and since then, there’s been a lot of momentum building. Then, with the election that we just had in November, Virginia elected a new Democratic majority that I think will really take this important step. These measures have been defeated in committees under the Republican leadership for years. Now we have an opportunity to get it done.

We’ve got a cannabis caucus, membership is growing, support is growing. And this is something that I think is long overdue in Virginia for a lot of good reasons — policy reasons, that it needs to change. But I also think Virginians are ready for this. Polling shows the vast majority of Virginians support decriminalization and a majority support legalization. This is an area where I think the legislature has actually been behind where the people are and this is an opportunity to get this right.