The Virginia House of Delegates and Senate on Friday approved bills to legalize marijuana in the Commonwealth, meeting a key mid-session deadline and getting the major policy change one step closer to being enacted.
The bills have been heard and amended by numerous committees and subcommittees since Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and top lawmakers unveiled their legalization proposal last month.
The House approved the final version of its bill in a 55-42 vote, with two abstentions. Hours later, the Senate passed its proposal 23-15.
Huge win!! My marijuana legalization bill, HB2312, just passed through the full House. This legislation will provide long overdue justice for so many marginalized communities in Virginia. pic.twitter.com/g4XjtVjj5H
— Charniele Herring (@C_Herring) February 5, 2021
The bill “is a forward-thinking, deliberative approach to create a regulated adult use market for cannabis, which will reform our criminal justice system and begin the long process of undoing the harms of prohibition,” Sen. Adam Ebbin (D) said on the floor, adding that the “Commonwealth’s prohibition on cannabis has clearly failed.”
. @SenLouiseLucas and my legislation to #legalize a regulated adult-use market for cannabis, repair the harms of prohibition, and advance equity in our Commonwealth passes the Senate by a vote of 23-15! pic.twitter.com/CSka1PFfKi
— Adam Ebbin (@AdamEbbin) February 5, 2021
Some House members spoke in opposition to the legislation during Friday’s floor debate, claiming that legalization would lead to increased youth use and impaired driving.
Del. Don Scott (D) defended the proposal and emphasized that it “provides social equity and helps improve those communities who have been most impacted and harmed by the prohibition against cannabis.”
Hard to believe how much the push for intersectional justice moves us Virginia Dems to act. A year ago legalizing marijuana & abolishing the death penalty were far-fetched. But Black Lives Matter protests moved the needle, so we just did both.
This one's for you, George Floyd.
— Del. Ibraheem Samirah (@IbraheemSamirah) February 5, 2021
Friday marks an important mid-session deadline to cross over bills from one chamber to the other. The House version will now head to the Senate, and the Senate version will be transmitted to the House for consideration.
Now it is expected that a bicameral conference committee will be empaneled to resolve the differences between the two chambers’ bills and merge them into a single proposal that the full legislature can send to the governor’s desk.
“Virginians have been clear in their support for this issue and Governor Northam agrees, it is time to legalize the responsible use of cannabis by adults in the Commonwealth,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “And while today’s historic votes seek to put this majority public opinion into practice, there still remains much work to be done by NORML and others to ensure that Virginia gets it right and implements legislation that is expeditious and just.”
Marijuana Policy Project Executive Director Steve Hawkins said in a press release that “Virginia appears poised to join 15 other states that have adopted sensible laws that legalize and regulate marijuana for adults.”
Under the legislation, adults 21 and older would be able to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to four plants for personal use, two of which could be mature. It also provides for automatic expungements for certain prior marijuana convictions.
Tax revenue from cannabis sales would partly fund pre-K education programs at at-risk youth and would support public health initiatives.
State Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who endorsed legalization ahead of Northam and other officials, cheered lawmakers’ action.
“Marijuana legalization is crucial for promoting equity,” he said on Twitter. “Proud of the work we’ve done in the Commonwealth to get to this moment.”
Marijuana legalization is crucial for promoting equity. Proud of the work we've done in the Commonwealth to get to this moment. https://t.co/ziVR7kouQL
— Mark Herring (@MarkHerringVA) February 5, 2021
Issues that came up in committees and will likely be debated in conference include: the regulatory structure for overseeing the industry, qualifications for social equity cannabis licensees, local control over how and where marijuana businesses can operate, home cultivation rights, vertical integration rules for the market and timelines for implementing the end of prohibition.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 550 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
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Support for legalizing marijuana is strong in Virginia, according to a poll released this week. It found that a majority of adults in the Commonwealth (68 percent) favor adult-use legalization, and that includes a slim majority of Republicans (51 percent).
The legislature has also taken up a number of other more modest cannabis reform proposals this session.
Bills to allow medical patients to access whole-flower cannabis in addition to oils, facilitate automatic expungements for certain marijuana convictions, protect employment rights of medical cannabis patients and allow those in hospice and nursing facilities to access medical marijuana have each advanced in recent days.
Virginia lawmakers passed separate legislation last year that decriminalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, replacing existing penalties with a $25 civil fine and no threat of jail time. The law took effect last July.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.