Virginia lawmakers sent a bill that would legalize smokable hemp to the governor’s desk on Monday, and they also approved a separate resolution requiring a joint legislative commission to undertake an official study on the broader legalization of marijuana in the commonwealth.
The Senate voted 37-3 to pass HB 962, legislation that seeks to clarify that smokable hemp products can be lawfully sold to adults 21 and older. It cleared the House of Delegates earlier this month.
The House, meanwhile, approved the Senate-passed SJ 67, which would direct a commission to “study and make recommendations for how Virginia should go about legalizing and regulating the growth, sale, and possession of marijuana by July 1, 2022.” The vote was 63-36.
These developments come amid a push to enact a separate bill to decriminalization cannabis possession in the state. Both chambers of the General Assembly have approved similar versions of decriminalization, but reform advocates had hoped that any remaining differences would have been resolved in committee in order to avoid conference so that the bill would go straight to Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
The Senate Appropriations Committee took steps to conform the bills on Tuesday, but the matter will still go to a bicameral conference committee before heading to Northam’s desk.
While the legalization study resolution might seem like a modest proposal, it represents a significant step in the legislature, Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment.
“The Virginia legislature rarely makes large policy changes without a study,” Pedini said, adding that lawmakers have taken a similar approach to expungements legislation this year.
But even though the study resolution passed, a separate, related proposal is facing a hurdle.
The study measure had previously been amended to incorporate separate legislation, SJ 66, which would form a joint subcommittee that’d be tasked with reviewing the commission’s legalization analysis and recommendations. This Senate-passed resolution has been referred to the House Rules Committee, but its prospects of passing the full chamber are murky.
If the House fails to approve it, advocates plan to push for a floor amendment to a provision of the decriminalization legislation to make it mirror SJ 66. However, rather than a joint subcommittee, the review of the study would be conducted by a working group.
“There are a lot of moving parts in this,” Pedini explained.
Northam is in favor of decriminalization, including a call for the policy change in his State of the Commonwealth address last month, but he’s yet to back broader adult-use legalization. Advocates feel the study legislation will move him to get on board.
Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who supports legalization and is running to replace the term-limited governor in 2021, has also said he’s optimistic that Northam will come around on the issue.
Herring organized a cannabis summit late last year to hear from officials representing states that have already legalized marijuana.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.