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Gov. Northam considers speeding up legalization of marijuana in Virginia

State Sens. Jeremy S. McPike (D-Prince William), left, L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) and Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) confer on marijuana legislation before the floor session of the Virginia Senate on Feb. 27. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP)

RICHMOND — Lawmakers are working with Gov. Ralph Northam's office to consider speeding up the legalization of marijuana by years, possibly making possession legal as soon as July 1 instead of the Jan. 1, 2024, date the General Assembly approved last month.

Almost no one was happy with the 250-page marijuana legalization measure that limped out of the Senate and House of Delegates as the General Assembly wrapped up its session on Feb. 27.

Virginia lawmakers reach deal on marijuana legalization as General Assembly winds down ambitious session

In addition to delaying legalization until 2024, the bill also requires significant components of the comprehensive package to be reenacted by the legislature next year. Many advocates — and some Democratic lawmakers — complained that the delays had all but gutted the bill.

Attention immediately shifted to Northam (D), who has until the end of March to sign, veto or amend the legislation. His advisers have already met once with lawmakers and their staffs to look at possible changes, and more meetings are set for next week.

The General Assembly will reconvene for one day on April 7 to consider Northam’s actions on that or any other bills. Whatever the governor comes up with will have to win a majority of votes in the House and Senate to be enacted.

Speeding up the date at which adults can legally possess small amounts of marijuana “is something we’re open to, something we’re talking about with both chambers,” Northam chief of staff Clark Mercer said in an interview.

“I feel pretty good that we will legalize simple possession before 2024 so that we can stop Black and Brown people being disproportionately charged,” said Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond), who had tried during the General Assembly session to amend the bill with an earlier date.

The date gets at a fundamental dilemma lawmakers never quite settled: Establishing a new, regulated cannabis industry will take time — a whole new state agency has to be created, licenses issued, and so on. If the state waits until that’s all in place to make possession legal, people will continue being arrested for something that is essentially no longer a crime.

A disproportionate number of those defendants will be racial minorities, state studies have shown. That imbalance continued even after Virginia decriminalized marijuana possession last year, imposing a civil fine instead of criminal charges for possessing small amounts, Mercer said.

Virginia’s governor says he supports legalizing marijuana

But if the state decides to go ahead and legalize possession before the regulated industry is in place, it could prompt an explosion in the illicit market for cannabis that will make it hard for legitimate players to compete later.

To combat that, lawmakers and Northam are considering moving up the date at which it’s legal to cultivate marijuana at home for personal use, said Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill.

“I think that’s something that could change” in the version that’s sent back to the General Assembly, Ebbin said.

House Majority Leader Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria), who sponsored the House version of the bill, has supported the later date for legalization. On Friday her spokeswoman defended the 2024 date as consistent with a state study of the issue conducted last year, but said Herring would “look into” an earlier date if Northam proposes one.

Another major area under discussion involves restructuring criminal penalties for a range of drug offenses — and for other types of violations, as well.

“We’re looking at putting down a marker that we’re going to be thoughtful about penalties,” Mercer said. “That includes a broader conversation that includes alcohol, smoking and marijuana, with an eye toward education and counseling as a first step, particularly when young folks are [involved].”

That’s an aspect of the legislation that has to be reenacted by next year’s General Assembly, but Mercer and others said the provisions could be more comprehensive than the version adopted last month.

“Do you want the penalties for one” — alcohol, tobacco or marijuana — “to be harsher than the others, or should they all be equalized?” McClellan said. “That was part of the discussion of the bill, but we ran out of time to figure it out. The governor has time to do some of that.”

She added that Virginia also can take lessons from the marijuana law recently enacted by the state of New Jersey. “We are taking the time to get it right,” she said.