The governor of Virginia on Thursday officially proposed pushing up the timeline to implement marijuana legalization—one of a series of amendments to the reform legislation that he’s submitting to lawmakers, who will consider them next week.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) also addressed concerns over provisions dealing with home cultivation, expungements and worker protections.
Top legislators and reform advocates have been pushing for many of these changes, particularly moving up the effective date. The governor’s proposal would make it so possession of cannabis by adults 21 and older would be legal on July 1, rather than in 2024 as the measure currently stipulates.
Home cultivation would be allowed starting on July 1 as well. Plants would have to be labeled with “identification information, out of sight of public view, and out of range of individuals under the age of 21,” a summary states.
“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.”
Virginia is ready to legalize adult-use marijuana—and I believe we should get it done starting July 1, 2021.https://t.co/RF1DR0lRPC
— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) March 31, 2021
The Senate version of the legalization bill would have legalized possession by July 1, but the House of Delegates pushed for delaying the effective date until legal sales launch on January 1, 2024, and that chamber won out following negotiations on sending the bill to Northam’s desk last month. That said, the House speaker and other top lawmakers shifted their position in recent days, joining the call to legalize ahead of schedule.
Lawmakers will now take up Northam’s proposed changes in a short session on April 7.
The governor also asked the legislature to adopt an amendment to expedite automatic expungements for people with prior marijuana convictions.
Additionally, he called for immediate funding for a public education campaign “on the health and safety risks of marijuana,” as well as money for law enforcement training to train officers to “recognize and prevent drugged driving.”
Further, he proposed a revision stating that regulators should have the authority to “revoke a company’s business license if they interfere with union organizing efforts, fail to pay prevailing wage as defined by the United States Department of Labor, or classify more than ten percent of employees as independent contractors.”
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Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) said that “Virginia’s communities of color deserve equity—and that means taking action now to end the disproportionate fines, arrests, and convictions of marijuana offenses” and he is “proud of the work to improve this bill for all of the people we serve, and I look forward to this legislation becoming law.”
Advocates are pleased with some of the amendments, but say they wanted more from the governor.
“While a number of important improvements were made, we’re disappointed that Virginia is not following the common-sense pathways previously established by other states that have successfully expanded from medical-use to adult-use,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “In the interest of public and consumer safety, Virginians 21 and older should be able to purchase retail cannabis products at the already operational dispensaries in 2021, not in 2024.”
Pedini, who also serves as NORML’s national development director, said “such a delay will only exacerbate the divide for equity applicants and embolden illicit activity.”
Advocates also pressed the governor to address concerns about new criminal penalties for issues related to driving with an open container, public consumption or bringing marijuana into the state from neighboring jurisdictions—but Northam’s press release makes no mention of changes on those issues.
Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D), who had previously expressed concerns about enacting legalization this year but who came around to the idea in recent days, said the governor’s amendments “will stop the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws beginning this summer, while also focusing on public safety and educating our youth.”
“This is a very important step for equity,” she said, “and I’m grateful for the Governor’s leadership.”
Herring said last week that any move to legalize early must be accompanied by “a plan for education and public safety,” which was addressed in one of the governor’s other changes.
Days after the governor first signaled that he’d be open to allowing certain provisions of the legalization measure to take effect earlier, other leaders of Virginia’s House of Delegates joined that call, with Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D) saying that “change is long past due and it cannot wait.”
She listed three revisions she hoped would be incorporated into the legislation: 1) giving people with non-violent cannabis convictions the opportunity for resentencing, 2) automatically expunging convictions for non-violent marijuana offenses starting July 1 and 3) legalizing home cultivation for personal, adult use on that date as well.
On the speaker’s first point, Northam’s press release said he “will continue working hand in hand with legislators to make Virginia’s criminal justice system more equitable, including through efforts to re-sentence those previously convicted for marijuana offenses.”
After the governor announced his decision, Filler-Corn said the changes represent “another step towards ending the targeting of minority communities over marijuana-related offenses & enacting a framework for the legal sale & use of cannabis.”
These amendments are another step towards ending the targeting of minority communities over marijuana-related offenses & enacting a framework for the legal sale & use of cannabis. I’m grateful to the Governor, my colleagues, and advocates who worked on this important legislation. https://t.co/k31QhIJuDa
— Eileen Filler-Corn (@EFillerCorn) March 31, 2021
Advocacy groups, including the ACLU of Virginia and Marijuana Justice, were highly critical of the legislature’s move to delay legalization until 2024.
Meanwhile, a Republican congressman recently wrote to Northam, calling marijuana a “gateway drug” and asking the governor to veto the legislation altogether—a proposal that was rejected.
Lawmakers in both chambers will need to approve Northam’s amendments next week in order for them to be added to the bill.
Support for legalizing marijuana is strong in Virginia, according to a poll released this month. It found that more than two-thirds of adults in the Commonwealth (68 percent) favor adult-use legalization, including a slim majority (51 percent) of Republican voters.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.