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Drawing the Lines

Redistricting reform faces a key milestone at the General Assembly, and the marijuana debate continues to evolve.



Should ice-cream trucks have warning lights when stationary?

Should casket sales be limited to licensed funeral homes?

If you win $10 million or more in the Virginia Lottery, should you be able to keep your identity a secret?

Is Richmond musician Susan Greenbaum's "Virginia, Home of My Heart" worthy of being crowned the official state folk song?

All these questions can be yours if you're a member of the Virginia General Assembly this session. And like the odds of your picking a $10 million lottery ticket, it's unlikely that any of the answers you produce will affect the lives of most Virginians.

But somewhere, for some people, even the seemingly miscellaneous bills are significant to certain industries, groups and niches across the state.

One issue on the table strikes at the heart of 140 very specific people — the state senators and delegates themselves — and affects every Virginian.

It would determine how electoral districts are drawn, taking the job out of the hands of politicians and laying it at the feet of an independent commission of 10 residents. In effect, it would end gerrymandering.

"I think that the policy and the politics of this are aligning in a way that hasn't happened before," says Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, which started four years ago with its sights set on fair redistricting.

The group's efforts have been blocked year after year, says Alex Keena, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"Just the fact that this is even something on the radar is amazing," Keena says, because of the strenuous process it takes to amend the Virginia Constitution and the idea that you're asking politicians to take power away from themselves — power that could determine their electoral fate and their constituent map.

But the data underscores why politicians shouldn't have control over the process and for most people it's becoming commonsense, says Keena, who specializes in political representation and wrote the 2016 book, "Gerrymandering in America."

Attitudes are shifting, Cannon says. VirginiaOne2021's group of supporters, donors and petition signers has grown from 3,500 to 97,000. Fundraising is up. Bipartisan support has strengthened. Five states passed redistricting reform in 2018.

And Virginia voters support a constitutional amendment to change the redistricting by a margin of 78 percent to 17 percent, according to a Dec. 5 poll by the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

That kind of public support bolsters the cause, Cannon says: "Our policy proposal is more robust than it's ever been."

It's outlined in Senate Joint Resolution 274, one of about 60 bills addressing various election issues. The chief co-patrons are Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., R-Mount Solon, and Sen. Mamie E. Locke, D-Hampton.

The session that began Jan. 9 started the clock on a key process to amend the Virginia Constitution. If passed this session, it would need to clear hurdles during a nearly two-year period that includes an election in November, another passage requirement at next year's General Assembly session, and a voter referendum.

It's not the only legislation to pack a little more of a wallop than declaring the European honey bee, or Apis mellifera, as the official state pollinator.

Delegate Steve Heretick, D-Hampton Roads, dropped a doozy with his bill at the start of the session to allow adults 21 and older to buy and consume marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.

"The sky has not fallen in places like Colorado and Maine and Massachusetts," Heretick says, citing a change in attitudes. "We now recognize that marijuana is not the gateway drug that I grew up hearing that it was."

He wanted to have marijuana overseen by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services — "just like we would any other crop," he says.

But that debate will have to flourish another day. His bills, like some other marijuana-related proposals, were left by the wayside last week.

That's a good thing in the eyes of Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), who helped usher in medical cannabis oils legislation in 2015 with Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico).

Marsden worried that a full-on debate about across-the-board legalization would be a distraction, especially over a "radical step" that was unlikely to happen this session. "That would be a pretty significant policy change to make midstream as we're trying to put this other policy in place," Marsden says.

What he and Dunnavant hope to do this session is fine-tune the new CBD medical oil industry, putting protocols in place, reducing overhead costs and define the amount of THC in the products.

Earlier legislation also required that a pharmacist always needed to be present where the marijuana plant was being grown and processed. Unnecessary, he says: "We don't want pharmacists to have to be on duty to watch plants grow at night."

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