Bills to legalize marijuana in Virginia cleared key procedural floor votes on Thursday, setting them up for final passage in their originating chambers on Friday.
In both the House of Delegates and Senate, lawmakers advanced the reform legislation on second reading.
Members of the House agreed to adopt a substitute version that was approved by the Courts of Justice Committee last week. The Senate advanced its version of the legalization bill later in the day after adopting a Judiciary Committee substitute and amendments from the Finance and Appropriations Committee.
Both pieces of legislation were subject to multiple committee and subcommittee hearings in recent weeks, with legislators debating and making revisions to their proposals. Legislators focused on a number of issues, such as 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.
Both the House and Senate had cleared the bills on first reading on Wednesday. Now the companion pieces of legislation head to votes on final passage in their respective chambers, with votes expected Friday—a critical mid-session “crossover” deadline to transmit bills from the originating body to the other chamber.
All of this comes after Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and top lawmakers unveiled their legalization proposal last month.
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D) gave her chamber a comprehensive overview of the bill’s main components during Thursday’s session, emphasizing the social equity, public safety and regulatory components of the legislation.
“It will promote diverse participation in the newly created cannabis industry, and the bill is structured for reinvesting in communities harmed by prohibition,” the lawmaker said.
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Legislative leaders have stressed that there will be further opportunities to revise the measures as the bills move forward—but that requires both chambers to pass their respective versions by Friday so that they can be crossed over.
After that point 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.
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 for at-risk youth and would support public health initiatives.
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 Brian Shamblen.