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Virginia House Leaders Urge Governor To Legalize Marijuana Earlier Than Planned, Reversing Prior Stance On 2024 Date



Leaders of Virginia’s House of Delegates are joining the call to implement marijuana legalization this year—contrary to the position their chamber previously took in negotiations with the Senate that resulted in a 2024 date for legal cannabis under a bill that’s now on the governor’s desk

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D) said on Friday that the legislature-approved measure should be amended to make July 1 the effective date for legal marijuana possession. She also proposed three further revisions concerning resentencing, expungements and home cultivation.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on Wednesday signaled that he also wants to push up the effective date, saying, “I personally don’t think we should be arresting or penalizing somebody for something we’re getting ready to legalize.”

“I plan to place a number of amendments in front of the legislature, and hopefully we’ll be able to move those forward,” he said.

As currently drafted, the proposal that passed the legislature last month would make it so possession and cultivation for personal use would continue to be criminalized until January 1, 2024, when the retail market would also launch. Advocates have argued that those activities should be legalized in short order while regulations for the commercial market are established.

Filler-Corn said she agrees, but she also wants to make additional changes before the bill is signed.

In a Twitter post, she listed three revisions she hopes will 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.

The speaker said that “legalization alone is not enough” and the state “must also address the historic targeting of black and brown individuals over non-violent marijuana related offenses.”

“In our pursuit of righting past wrongs, no Virginian can be left behind,” she said. “Change is long past due and it cannot wait.”

House Majority Charniele Herring (D), who had previously expressed concerns about enacting legalization this year, thanked the Filler-Corn for her “partnership & for pushing for those three additional amendments.”

“Addressing past inequities is crucial,” she said of the resentencing and expungements provisions.

While the bill progressed through the legislature this year, a Senate provision initially would’ve legalized possession and home cultivation on July 1. The House wanted to delay legalization completely until the launch of the commercial market in 2024, however, giving the state time to establish a regulatory agency to oversee licensing and retail sales.

Herring said earlier this week that any move to legalize early must be accompanied by “a plan for education and public safety,” according to Virginia Mercury. It is expected that Northam will also suggest amendments to that end.

Sen. Jennifer McClellen (D), who is running for her party’s gubernatorial nomination this year and who pushed for an earlier legalization effective date in the bicameral negotiations, celebrated the House leaders’ joining her call.

“I’m encouraged by the strong momentum behind our efforts to legalize simple possession of marijuana in 2021,” she said on Twitter. “Marijuana legalization should center equity starting in July, following the goals of my amendment. I’m optimistic that we will get it done.”

A staffer for Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), the legalization bill’s lead sponsor in the chamber, said he is “glad House leadership is now fully supporting this position” on ending prohibition this year.

“He is supportive of the additional amendments the speaker laid out to reduce the harms of the failed prohibition,” the statement, which was also reported by Virginia Mercury, says.

Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 900 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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Advocacy groups, including the ACLU of Virginia and Marijuana Justice, were highly critical of the legislature’s move to delay legalization until 2024, and celebrated the news that leaders are rallying around moving up the timeline.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, development director for NORML and executive director of the group’s Virginia chapter, told Marijuana Moment that the organization “agrees with Speaker Filler-Corn that change is long overdue, and applauds her in joining our call for legalization to take effect July 1.”

A source familiar with the discussions told Marijuana Moment this week that the governor’s office is also actively exploring a number of possible means 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 no final decisions have been made yet.

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.

The governor has until Wednesday to formally propose changes to the legislation.

Northam’s chief of staff first signaled earlier this month that he was open to moving the legalization date.

Meanwhile, a Republican congressman wrote to Northam, calling marijuana a “gateway drug” and asking the governor to veto the legislation altogether.

The legislature will consider any changes Northam proposes 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.

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Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.

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