Virginia's about to legalize weed and ban the death penalty

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The state is set to become the first in the South to end capital punishment.

Democrats in Virginia have notched a number of big progressive wins in recent weeks.

Despite a majority of Republicans voting against their legislative agenda, Democrats, who control the Legislature and governorship, have been able to push through major changes with relative ease.

In a historic vote on Wednesday, the state Senate passed a bill to end capital punishment, putting it on the path to become the first southern state to abolish the death penalty. The bill's passage marks a start turning point in the history of the state, which has executed more prisoners than any other since 1608, the Virginian Pilot noted.

In a party-line vote, all 21 Democratic state Senators supported the legislation, while virtually all Republicans voted against it.

Democratic state Sen. Scott Surovell, who sponsored the bill, told the Virginia Mercury, "If we look back 50 years from now, the electric chair, the lethal injection table — they’re going to be sitting in a museum. ... And people are going to look back and wonder how it ever was we used these things."

"The practice is fundamentally inequitable. It is inhumane. It is ineffective. And we know that in some cases, people on death row have been found innocent," Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam told the paper after the Senate's vote.

Additionally, advocates said the bill was a "matter of racial justice," referring to data showing prosecutors are more likely to seek capital punishment when defendants are Black and victims are White, according to the Mercury.

In another progressive victory for voting rights, a state Senate committee voted on Thursday to advance a bill that would "abolish felony disenfranchisement," The Appeal reported. The bill would allow those with felony convictions who have served their time to gain back their right to vote.

Currently, those with felony convictions must rely on the generosity of the governor to restore their voting rights. According to the secretary of the Virginia Commonwealth, Northam has thus far completed around 40,000 rights restorations, the Mercury noted.

Northam himself is "proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow any individual — upon completion of their sentence of imprisonment or active supervision — to automatically have their political rights restored, including the right to vote," his spokeswoman told the Mercury.

With the COVID-19 crisis still ravaging the nation, Virginia's Democratic lawmakers also moved to protect vulnerable essential workers, many of whom are minorities.

On Thursday, the Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill guaranteeing paid sick leave to essential employees working through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paid sick leave advocates who spoke to the Mercury noted that the coronavirus has disproportionally impacted people of color who are "more likely to work in frontline industries," citing Virginia Department of Health data. Even at Virginia's largest employers, only a third of service industry workers have access to paid sick leave, a study showed.

"That’s why we've been introducing this legislation every year," Democratic Del. Elizabeth Guzmán said on the floor Thursday. "I don’t think it’s right that Virginians have to choose between their health and a paycheck."

Virginia's Legislature is also considering this week another landmark bill that could benefit communities of color.

The state's General Assembly will vote on a proposal to legalize marijuana, which would make Virginia the first state in the South to pass such legislation.

In a committee hearing last week, Democratic Sen. Jennifer McClellan argued that the current system of issuing civil fines for marijuana possession "maintains the disproportionate impact on certain communities, particularly communities of color and poorer communities."

That argument is supported by reality: According to a 2013 ACLU report, Black Americans are "3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates."

"...The War on Marijuana, like the larger War on Drugs of which it is a part, is a failure. It has needlessly ensnared hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system, had a staggeringly disproportionate impact on African-Americans, and comes at a tremendous human and financial cost," the ACLU stated.

Earlier this week, the state Legislature also passed a bill banning firearms and stun guns on capitol grounds, an effort which Republicans widely opposed. The measures are being considered in the wake of the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and connected threats at statehouses across the country.

In a hearing, Democratic Del. Mark Levine said the bill would protect against armed extremist groups, adding that they "don't have a right...to intimidate us into voting the way they want using guns."

Pro-gun groups like the Virginia Citizens Defense League pushed back, claiming the bill was unnecessary, the Mercury noted.

In the short amount of time since Democrats took control of Virginia's General Assembly in 2019, they have, working alongside Northam, passed a number of progressive bills, including a minimum wage increase, LGBTQ rights, ERA ratification, and abortion protections.

The GOP minority in the state's legislature, meanwhile, has largely continued to vote against many of the progressive policies that assist underserved communities.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.