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Virginia Lawmakers Move to Legalize Marijuana….In 2024

marijuana plant
A flowering marijuana plant at the gLeaf facility. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

Virginia cannabis connoisseurs will have to wait nearly three years before the drug is fully legalized under a plan approved by the General Assembly on Saturday. And while the Jan. 1, 2024 start date is firm under the current legislation, lawmakers will have to re-approve large parts of the regulations guiding legalization when they meet next year.

The bill now heads to Gov. Ralph Northam, who has made legalization a priority in his final year in office.

The agreement passed over the objections of a coalition of criminal justice advocates ranging from the ACLU of Virginia to the advocacy group Marijuana Justice. Many had pushed for the state to remove all fines and penalties for possessing the drug beginning July 1 of this year. Seven Democratic lawmakers in the House of Delegates appeared to agree, sitting out the vote. 

“Even the thought of business before justice is hard to stomach, knowing that some of my constituents are in jail right now,” said Del. Cia Price (D-Newport News), who did not cast a vote.

All but one Senate Democrat, Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), voted to pass legalization in a 20-19 vote.

Closed-door negotiations between a small group of House and Senate lawmakers nearly collapsed several times. Democratic senators ultimately won out in their demands that the legislature reconsider, arguing that the issue was complex and that they needed more time to finesse the policy details.

Jenn Michell Pedini, director of Virginia NORML, said the group hoped to “expedite the timeline” for removing civil and criminal penalties associated with adult use of marijuana. But she argued that the bill, which the group helped craft, was a big step in the right direction.

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), who sponsored the House bill, made a similar case and argued the bill could be improved by amendments from Northam.

“I think it moves a direction to strike down those institutional barriers in over-policing, over-arrest, over-convictions of African Americans,” Herring said. “I look forward to addressing, in a holistic manner, all of our possession laws.”

Republicans either abstained from voting on the bill or shot it down. Some lawmakers argued it was confusing to promise legalization but put it off three years; Senate minority leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) called the bill “one of the most horrendous pieces of legislation that have been jammed through” the chamber because he felt it had not been vetted. 

“If the people of this body can’t even decipher what's in it, how in the world is the average Virginian supposed to know that they can't grow it in their backyard, that they can't possess a certain amount?” said Sen. Richard Stuart (R-King George).

Some Democrats also voiced concerns about how the bill was being sold.

“This bill is not legalization,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), who pushed for a July 1, 2021 legalization date.  “There are a lot of steps between here and legalization.”

Legalizing marijuana would eventually bring in between $150 - $300 million per year in state tax revenues and create roughly 11,000 mostly low-wage jobs, according to a state report released last year

Under the agreement, marijuana will be taxed at 21% on the state level; localities could tack on an extra 3%. They could also choose to opt out of the market by holding a referendum by the end of 2022. 

People with marijuana-related criminal records could petition to have those records expunged. Or they would have the records automatically expunged seven years after the crime was committed in the case of misdemeanors, and ten years for felonies.

The proposal would send 40% of state revenues toward early childhood education. Another 30% would go toward communities and individuals impacted by the War on Drugs, including “social equity” applicants. Some racial equity advocates argued that total was insufficient, pointing toward a plan signed by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this week that will steer 70% of revenue toward a similar fund.

Lawmakers reduced penalties for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana to a $25 civil penalty last year. But the move did not change longstanding racial disparities in how marijuana infractions are enforced. A VPM analysis found Black Virginians were still four times more likely to be cited than whites despite similar usage patterns. 

Backers of legalization, including Northam, pitched it as a way to address those disparities. But criminal justice advocates claimed that it created the possibility of new crimes that would likely fall most heavily on people of color. That includes an “open container” provision that would allow a judge to infer that a person is driving under the influence if they spot an open container of marijuana and the behavior or appearance of a driver appears to be impaired.

“Virginia lawmakers may claim “Black Lives Matter” on social media, but their words mean little when they don’t act in a way that redresses the impacts of over-policing, violence, and economic disinvestment in the communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs,” the ACLU of Virginia said in a statement posted to Twitter.

Lawmakers will reconsider criminal provisions of the bill next year. 

Large chunks of the bill would go into effect July 1, 2021. The agreement creates a new regulatory authority -- the Cannabis Control Authority -- beginning on that date. The CCA would immediately begin drafting regulations related to advertising, product safety and personal cultivation. 

The bill also creates a new “Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund” set aside to support communities impacted by the War on Drugs through scholarships, workforce training programs, and a loan program for so-called “social equity” applicants.  

The negotiated agreement scraps a Senate plan to hold a non-binding referendum on marijuana legalization -- another sticking point that threatened to scuttle negotiations. A recent poll from Christopher Newport University showed 68% of Virginians surveyed supported legalizing cannabis.

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