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Northam proposes legalizing marijuana in Virginia on July 1

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has proposed changes to the marijuana legalization bill that passed the General Assembly in February, most notably legalizing possession of small amounts on July 1 instead of waiting until Jan. 1, 2024.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has proposed changes to the marijuana legalization bill that passed the General Assembly in February, most notably legalizing possession of small amounts on July 1 instead of waiting until Jan. 1, 2024. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam has asked the General Assembly to speed up the legalization of marijuana in the state, making it lawful for an adult to possess up to one ounce on July 1, 2021, instead of waiting until early 2024.

Northam’s request is in the form of a proposed amendment to the legalization bill the General Assembly passed last month. The legislature had settled on the later date amid last-minute wrangling on the complex, 250-page bill.

“Our Commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way,” Northam (D) said in a news release ahead of Wednesday’s deadline for filing the amendment. “Virginia will become the 15th state to legalize marijuana — and these changes will ensure we do it with a focus on public safety, public health, and social justice.”

His proposals include changes to several other aspects of the legislation. One would empower the Cannabis Control Authority — the new regulatory agency that will be created to oversee the marijuana industry — to suspend the licenses of businesses that don’t allow workers to organize, pay less than a prevailing wage or classify more than 10 percent of workers as independent contractors.

Gov. Northam considers speeding up the legalization of marijuana in Virginia

Northam is also proposing a quicker route for expunging marijuana-related incidents from criminal records, and allowing home cultivation of up to four plants per household as of July 1, 2021.

In addition, he is seeking budget amendments to set aside money this year for an advertising campaign on the safety risks of marijuana use and to begin training police to recognize driving under the influence of the drug.

The General Assembly will take up the proposals when it reconvenes April 7 for a one-day session to consider any vetoes or amendments Northam has proposed to this year’s legislation.

Prospects seem good for the legalization changes in both chambers. The House of Delegates had pushed for the later date for legalizing possession when passing the legislation, arguing that the state needed time to get a new commercial industry up and running. Northam had also supported waiting.

But House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said last Friday that she and other House leaders would be on board with speeding up the date for legal possession.

Advocates argued that waiting to legalize possession after having approved a regulated industry would send a mixed message and still leave people vulnerable to arrest — particularly people of color, who statistics show are far more likely than White people to be prosecuted for marijuana in Virginia. The state decriminalized possession of small amounts last year, but police can still arrest violators on civil charges.

“We’re moving toward a more equitable and just law,” House Majority Leader Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria) said. “Moving the legalization date up for simple possession will stop us penalizing people, because it’s still . . . disproportionate arrests or citations given to Black and Brown people.”

Virginia’s governor says he supports legalizing marijuana

“It’s just logical,” said Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who co-sponsored the Senate version of the bill, which passed that chamber with the earlier effective date. “If we’re going to do it, let’s do it.”

Virginia would become the first former Confederate state to legalize marijuana. The regulated consumer industry would still not come online until 2024, and several aspects regarding reclassifying drug- and alcohol-related crimes must be voted on again next year by the General Assembly.

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