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Virginia Governor Pushes Lawmakers To Legalize Marijuana Possession By July

Northam is accelerating the original plan by nearly three years. Critics accuse him of stifling dissenting voices. 

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam requested the state’s General Assembly speed up its plans to legalize adult possession of marijuana by making the practice lawful starting this summer.

Northam announced a series of amendments on March 30 to legislation recently passed by the state’s legislature, including a recommendation that the legalization of personal cannabis possession and cultivation by adults take effect on July 1, 2021 — nearly three years earlier than previously planned.

“Our Commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way,” Northam said in a press release. “Virginia will become the 15th state to legalize marijuana — and these changes will ensure we do it with a focus on public safety, public health and social justice. I am grateful to the advocates and legislators for their dedicated work on this important issue, and I look forward to this legislation passing next month.”

In February, Virginia lawmakers approved a start date of Jan. 1, 2024, in coordination with the timeline that regulated marijuana sales are expected to begin.

Should the General Assembly approve Northam’s suggestion, residents aged 21 or older would instead be allowed to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and to grow and cultivate a maximum of four marijuana plants per household, beginning later this year.

The push to move up the date would not only make Virginia the first Southern state to legalize recreational, adult-use marijuana, but it also reflects the widespread support for the issue among Virginians, according to Jenn Michelle Pedini, development director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and executive director of Virginia NORML.

“We’re pleased Governor Northam agrees with NORML that the legalization of personal possession and personal cultivation ought to happen as soon as possible. Virginians have been very clear that they are ready for legalization this year, sending over 7,100 emails in support of these measures this session,” Pedini said in a press release, adding that 68 percent of registered voters in the state — including a majority of Republicans and Democrats — support cannabis legalization for adults.

Despite statewide polling signaling a high degree of public support for easing up on marijuana laws, Virginia lawmakers had dragged their feet on making significant changes for years while Republicans controlled both General Assembly chambers.

The lack of progress led Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring to call for cannabis reform after the state made nearly 29,000 arrests for marijuana-related offenses in 2018, a 20-year high. He noted that marijuana enforcement, which previously included possible jail time and fines for even first-time possession offenders, “falls disproportionately on African Americans and people and communities of color.”

A 2020 Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission report similarly showed that black residents were more than three times as likely to be arrested for simple marijuana possession.

After Democrats gained control of both the House of Delegates and State Senate in November 2019, lawmakers decriminalized cannabis possession in the summer of 2020, making it punishable with a $25 civil fine. However, Northam, also a Democrat, noted that the trend of targeting Virginians of color has continued, which drove him to propose advancing legalization by three years.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam requested the state’s General Assembly speed up its plans to legalize adult possession of marijuana by making the practice lawful starting this summer. (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)

Virginia’s legalization bill aims to address decades of inequitable criminalization of people of color under the state’s current marijuana laws by giving those negatively affected preference for cannabis marketplace licenses. The legislation also calls for directing 30 percent of marijuana tax revenue to the state’s Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund, which will be used to aid communities that have been over-policed for cannabis crimes.

“We are doing everything possible to repair and redress the harm done to communities of color most impacted by marijuana criminalization,” Delegate Lamont Bagby, Chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said in a statement.

“Virginia’s communities of color deserve equity — and that means taking action now to end the disproportionate fines, arrests and convictions of marijuana offenses,” Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax added.

The effort, however, has been met with backlash from groups that oppose marijuana legalization and commercialization.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a bipartisan political organization, criticized the legislation earlier in March, calling it “the result of a rushed process where hardly any time was given to thoroughly examine the potential harms of commercialization and voices of the many experts and professionals from the fields of substance-abuse prevention and medicine were essentially stifled.”

“Virginia lawmakers have repeatedly drawn inspiration from Big Marijuana’s playbook by extolling how commercialization in Virginia would result in social equity, but as we have seen in state after state … these grand promises of social equity amount to nothing more than empty words as the industry is quickly taken over by wealthy, overwhelmingly white investors and corporate interests,” organization president Dr. Kevin Sabet said. “There is little reason to expect Virginia’s experience will be any different.”

If passed when the legislature reconvenes on April 7, Virginia, which became the 34th state to enact a comprehensive medical marijuana program in 2020, would join more than a dozen other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing recreational, adult-use marijuana.

The substance, however, remains illegal at the federal level under the Controlled Substances Act.

(Edited by Matthew B. Hall and Fern Siegel)