Ahead of an end-of-month deadline to propose changes to a marijuana legalization bill that’s on his desk, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is signaling he’d like the state to legalize personal possession of cannabis as soon as July 1—two and a half years before lawmakers planned.
Under the legislature’s proposal, passed by the Senate and House of Delegates last month, possession of marijuana wouldn’t become legal until January 1, 2024—timed to coincide with the launch of the commercial market.
But while Northam has yet to formally declare whether he’ll seek to move up the timeline, he said in comments this week that he doesn’t like the idea of continuing to punish people for something that will soon be legal.
“I personally don’t think we should be arresting or penalizing somebody for something we’re getting ready to legalize,” he told VPM in an interview Wednesday. “I plan to place a number of amendments in front of the legislature, and hopefully we’ll be able to move those forward.”
The radio station also reported that several sources close to the governor have indicated he plans to move up legalization’s effective date.
A source familiar with the discussions told Marijuana Moment the governor’s office is also exploring a number of possible pathways to speed up other provisions of the legalization measure, including those concerning when sales could begin and the process for expunging past cannabis convictions—but has not yet made any final decisions.
Other specific amendments the governor might be considering ahead of his upcoming Wednesday deadline for proposing changes to the legislation remain unknown. It’s not clear, for example, whether moving up the date on personal possession would affect home cultivation for personal use, which also wouldn’t become legal until 2024 under the legislature’s plan.
Legalization advocates have asked the governor to consider additional changes to sections around new criminal offenses, such as for having open containers of cannabis, public consumption and bringing marijuana into the state from neighboring jurisdictions.
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Northam for weeks has been lobbied by lawmakers and advocates who’ve urged him to speed up the timeline on personal possession to address the state’s striking racial disparities in cannabis enforcement.
“I am encouraging my colleagues to join me in asking the Governor to #LegalizeMarijuana on July 1, 2021,” Senate President Pro Tem Louise Lucas (D) tweeted recently. “Kicking the can down the road has the effect of continued over policing of people of color.”
The governor’s chief of staff first signaled earlier this month that he was open to moving the legalization date.
On the other hand, a Republican congressman wrote to Northam, calling marijuana a “gateway drug” and asking the governor to veto the legislation altogether.
The plan to legalize personal possession in July isn’t new. As the bill moved through the legislature earlier this year, a Senate provision initially would’ve legalized possession and home cultivation on July 1. The House, meanwhile, wanted to delay legalization completely until the launch of the commercial market in 2024, giving the state time to establish a regulatory agency to oversee licensing and retail sales.
During negotiations between the two chambers, supporters of the later date won out.
The ACLU of Virginia condemned the bill after its passage, specifically criticizing the provision delaying legalization of possession until 2024 and saying it would “delay & deny justice to all those whose lives have been upended & who are still being harassed by police on the streets every day.”
The new changes, which would not legalize simple possession until 2024, do nothing to break the chains of marijuana prohibition.
It would delay & deny justice to all those whose lives have been upended & who are still being harassed by police on the streets every day.
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) February 28, 2021
Virginia recently decriminalized possession of small amounts of cannabis, replacing penalties last summer with a $25 fine. According to court records, however, Black people are still four times more likely than white people to receive a citation despite no significant difference in marijuana use between the two groups.
Legalization advocates welcomed the governor’s comments signaling he is leaning toward recommending the timeline change.
“Since the initial introduction of the administration’s proposal, NORML has maintained that legalization ought to take effect on July 1 of this year, and that legal personal possession and cultivation need not be tied to legal retail sales,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, development director for NORML and executive director of the group’s Virginia chapter, said in a statement to Marijuana Moment. “While the legislature heard us clearly on this issue, we’re pleased that Governor Northam now appears to be following suit.”
🎉ACTION WORKS: The @GovernorVA is considering legalizing simple possession of marijuana on 𝗝𝘂𝗹𝘆 𝟭, 𝟮𝟬𝟮𝟭!
The Governor is listening, folks. Keep up the pressure.
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) March 25, 2021
The legislature will consider Northam’s proposed changes during a short session set for April 7. Lawmakers in both chambers will need to approve the amendments 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 Kyle Jaeger