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Virginia Voters May Weigh in on Legalization

The flowering bud of a marijuana plant
Marijuana plants at gLeaf, a medical cannabis dispensary in Richmond. (Alex Scribner/VPM News)

Legal marijuana could be coming to Virginia as early as July 1 under legislation approved Tuesday by both chambers of the General Assembly.

But the bill crafted by Democrats in the state Senate would also put the issue to voters in a move critics say is designed to simply boost Democrat voter turnout this November. 

Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax County) said his idea for a non-binding ballot referendum fit into a broader strategy in the Senate that would require lawmakers to revisit most parts of the legalization bill next year. 

In the meantime, the 280-page Senate bill calls for possession of up to an ounce of cannabis to become legal on July 1. The House’s plan calls for waiting until retail sales are up and running in 2024. A small group of lawmakers will hammer out those and other differences in private over the next two weeks. 

Surovell said the referendum would allow lawmakers to hear public discussion around numerous sticking points of legalization: the role of medical marijuna dispensaries, the amount of plants to allow for personal use and how to treat juveniles caught possessing marijuana.

“There just really has not been a whole lot of public dialogue about what marijuana legalization really means,” Surovell said. 

As currently worded, the referendum asks, "Should the state legalize the sale of recreational marijuana from privately licensed retailers, wholesalers, and growers for use by adults?”

Critics ranging from pro-cannabis advocacy groups to Republican lawmakers argue the proposal is toothless and unnecessary. 

Jenn Michele Pedini, director of Virginia NORML, pointed to a recent poll from Christopher Newport University showing 68% of Virginians support legalizing cannabis. 

“It stands to reason that a non-binding referendum would only serve as a ploy to increase voter turnout in November,” Pedini said in an email. 

Chelsea Higgs Wise, director of the advocacy group Marijuana Justice, called the referendum “just another way to procrastinate.”

Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) also took issue with the idea. “Why are we going to waste time on something that’s non-binding?” he asked in a committee meeting earlier this month. 

Surovell said the ballot measure could help boost turnout, particularly among young voters, in off-year statewide elections where many have stayed home.

“I think it would probably inspire some people to vote that otherwise wouldn't participate,” he said. “Anything we do to get more people voting, I think, is always good.”

Academic research gives mixed evidence on whether a referendum would boost turnout, according to Rich Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph Macon College. The referendum also risked turning off Democratic voters who thought legalization was a done deal, Meagher said.

“That might be confusing and give mixed messages to Democratic voters about whether the Democrats are really committed to reform,” he said. 

The referendum is one of a number of key differences between legislation crafted by the two chambers. Lawmakers in those bodies are also at odds over penalties for possession and distribution, the process for expunging marijuana arrests, how much control to give localities over retail stores, and rules for personal cultivation.

The General Assembly is tentatively set to wrap up its work on Feb. 27.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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