Advocates promote social equity in Virginia marijuana bills

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Richard Coleman II poses in his home in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. Coleman said he was asked to leave four jobs and was taken out of the running for at least six others because of his convictions for possessing a fraction of an ounce of marijuana, once as a college student in 2003 and a second time a few years later. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. – Mike Thomas earned a college degree in accounting, but has never worked in his field. Three convictions for marijuana possession put an end to that.

Thomas said he's tried repeatedly, but prospective job offers go nowhere when background checks reveal his misdemeanor convictions.

Thomas, who is Black, is an example of one of the main arguments made in the push to legalize recreational marijuana in Virginia. Democrats in the General Assembly frame this as a social equity issue, a necessary step to ending the disparate criminalization of people of color under the state's current marijuana laws.

“After going through the background checks for a couple of jobs, then getting that letter saying they can’t hire me due to my background, I honestly just gave up seeking a good job," Thomas said. "From there on, it was 7-Eleven, Wendy’s, things of that nature. It really diminished my hopes of having a career.”

Separate bills approved by the Senate and House of Delegates this month would legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for people 21 and over. Both bills also would begin a process of automatically expunging misdemeanor marijuana-related offenses from criminal records on July 1.

They also include broader proposals, reflecting the Democrats' political strength in Virginia. Reparations to people of color and communities hurt by the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws would include a program that would give those who have been harmed preference for licenses to get into the marijuana marketplace as cultivators, wholesalers, processors and retailers.

Virginians who have a marijuana-related conviction, have family members with a conviction, or live in an area that is economically distressed could qualify as a “social equity” applicant who can receive technical advice and lower or waived application fees. The bills don’t specify what crimes might make a person or family ineligible.

Both bills also call for dedicating 30% of marijuana tax revenue — after program costs — to a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund. The money would be used to help communities that have been historically over-policed for marijuana crimes through scholarships, workforce development and job placement services, and low- or no-interest loans for qualified cannabis businesses.