RICHMOND, Va. - Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, says he will push Virginia to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults - a first for a statewide official in the commonwealth, which has traditionally taken a conservative approach toward drugs.

Other prominent Virginia politicians have previously called for decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, including the two Democrats who were on the ballot with Herring in 2017, Gov. Ralph Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.

Herring went a step further in recent days, in a newspaper commentary and remarks to reporters, by calling for decriminalization as a first step toward full legalization.

"Criminalization of marijuana possession is not working for Virginia," he said in a gathering with reporters Saturday. "We are needlessly creating criminals and getting a lot of convictions. . . . And this whole system - the weight of it - falls disproportionately on African-Americans and people of color. There is a better, smarter way to approach cannabis, and it starts with decriminalizing simple possession of small amounts, addressing past convictions and moving thoughtfully toward legal and regulated adult use."

Herring's position might appeal to progressive activists as the attorney general tries to move past a blackface scandal and considers a run for governor in 2021.

"This really moves this important issue to the front burner of Virginia politics," said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Republican Party spokesman John March saw Herring's announcement as dereliction of duty.

"Mark Herring continually fails to do his job of enforcing the laws of the Commonwealth," March said. "Between that and his admission of wearing blackface, Herring can't be taken seriously and should resign."

Herring announced in December that he would run for governor but was tarnished two months later during a period of high drama in Richmond. In the first week of February, Northam and Herring admitted to wearing blackface as young men, while two women accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting in the early 2000s; Fairfax says the encounters were consensual.

Since then, Herring has sidestepped questions about whether he still plans to run for governor.

In interviews with reporters at a Democratic gathering in Richmond on Saturday night, Herring said that he would advocate for the General Assembly to decriminalize marijuana in next year's session. He would also seek relief for people already charged with possessing small amounts, releasing those who are jailed, pardoning and expunging the records of those already convicted.

From there, he said, he would push for legalization. He said was already in touch with his counterparts in states that have decriminalized or legalized, to learn from their experience.

State Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, applauded Herring's stance on legalization. Since 2015, Ebbin has carried legislation intended to decriminalize possession, but the bills have all failed.

"I appreciate his leadership," Ebbin said. "I think by virtue of his office ... this adds momentum to what is already moving in the right direction."

Yet some Democrats said they were not ready to get behind legalization.

"It should be decriminalized. Legalization is a little bit different," said Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax. "That I'm not totally sold on yet. . . . I'm not ruling it out in the future, but I'm not there yet. But we shouldn't be putting people in jail for possession."

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult, recreational use of marijuana, Pedini said. Maryland is among those that have approved medical marijuana and decriminalization.

Virginia has opened the door to medical marijuana little by little in recent years, moved by testimony of parents who said an oil derived from marijuana helped ease severe seizures in their children. The oil first approved had to be stripped of most of the plant's THC, the chemical compound that makes it intoxicating. But the legislature went on to loosen those standards.

The state has granted licenses to five companies to produce any "extraction-based" products - oils, sprays, patches, capsules, containing up to 10 milligrams of THC - though the flowers typically smoked remain banned in the state, Pedini said.

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