The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Marijuana bills in flux as Virginia’s legislative session nears end

RICHMOND — An effort to legalize marijuana in Virginia is coming down to the final days of the General Assembly session, as House and Senate negotiators try to reconcile competing plans.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called for legalization in November, following the release of a study that found sales could generate up to $300 million in tax revenue and create over 11,000 jobs.

Virginia’s governor says he supports legalizing marijuana

The House and Senate each passed legalization bills, but with differences that need to be worked out before they can advance to Northam’s desk. The deadline for wrapping up work on all legislation is Saturday, although the legislature will not formally adjourn until Monday.

Even as time grew short this week, both sides appeared committed to striking a deal, spending many hours in negotiations, according to two people familiar with the conference committee’s efforts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

“We are doing everything in our power to negotiate with the Senate to get the bill passed,” said one of the two, a House staffer. “We’ve spent a lot of time and energy into this legislation and it’s a huge priority for House Dems.”

Democrats in control of the House and Senate spent Friday trying to get several other criminal justice bills over the finish line, knowing that any priorities pushed off until next year could be out of reach if Republicans win the House or Executive Mansion in November elections. The Senate will not be on the ballot until 2023.

Before noon Friday, the chambers came to terms on legislation to ban the “gay/trans panic defense” in murder and assault cases. The bills state that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity cannot, on its own or in concert with a sexual advance, be considered justification for violence.

But lawmakers were still negotiating over how to reduce the use of mandatory minimum criminal sentences, with the Senate favoring more sweeping action than the House. The Virginia State Crime Commission has recommended doing away with all mandatory minimums, which take discretion away from judges and juries.

“Every single person that comes before a judge is different; their case is different, their situation is different,” said Tinsae Gebriel, deputy director of policy at Families Against Mandatory Minimums. But Republican critics have argued that Democrats are favoring rapists and drunk drivers over their victims.

The House has passed a bill to repeal mandatory minimums for drug crimes, while the Senate would eliminate them altogether, except for the willful murder of a law enforcement officer. That crime is currently punishable by death, but the penalty would become life in prison once Northam fulfills a promise to sign legislation abolishing capital punishment.

Lawmakers are also still debating a Senate bill that would allow more defendants to present evidence of mental illness or intellectual disabilities in court. Right now, use of such evidence is extremely limited.

Among those who testified in favor of the bill at a House subcommittee hearing last week was the mother of an autistic young man, Matthew Rushin, who was sentenced to spend 10 years in prison after causing a fatal car crash. He was given a conditional pardon by Northam last year but has not yet been released.

“It’s just a tragic situation,” Lavern Rushin said. “I truly believe that if this bill was in place, Matthew’s mental health, Matthew’s processes would have been taken into consideration.”

The bill passed the Senate but faced resistance in the House hearing, where Chairman Michael P. Mullin (D-Newport News), a prosecutor, said it “could be a very large mistake.”

In the final days of the session, both chambers also passed legislation to eliminate a presumption against release on bail for people charged with certain crimes, and a bill to limit how long people can be put on probation and the amount of punishment they can face for violating it.

The marijuana bills were proposed by two Alexandria Democrats who carried the bills, Sen. Adam P. Ebbin and House Majority Leader Charniele L. Herring, who is also chairwoman of the Crime Commission.

They did not respond to requests for comment this week, as lawmakers were largely tied up with floor sessions and conference committees.

Some differences appear to have been worked out, including the timeline for legalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. The Senate bill calls for legalization on July 1, while the House version would delay that until Jan. 1, 2024, the date for sales to become legal in both measures. Negotiators appear to have settled on the later date. The legislature passed a bill last year that decriminalized possession of marijuana, creating a $25 civil penalty for a first offense.

One area of disagreement concerns whether the five medical marijuana operators already permitted to grow, process and sell medical cannabis in the state will be allowed to sell to recreational users.

The House has opposed that sort of vertical integration for the recreational market, saying that would give an advantage to existing medical operators and open the door for big business to dominate.

The Senate bill would allow it, but with a seven-figure caveat: each medical marijuana outfit would have to contribute $1 million to a Cannabis Equity Business Fund. The fund would help people from disadvantaged backgrounds get established in the marijuana business.

Both bills call for a certain percentage of marijuana sales licenses to be “equity licenses” — set aside for people deemed to have been hurt by the substance’s prohibition, including those who have been convicted of marijuana crimes or have lived in “overpoliced” communities.

Under both bills, the state would begin July 1 to set up a Virginia Cannabis Control Authority to oversee the industry. Among the sticking points are concerns over how much say the General Assembly would have as the authority begins writing regulations.

The Senate, which is pushing for more involvement, has a provision in its bill to create a legislative oversight committee. It also contains a “reenactment clause” that would allow the General Assembly to revisit the authority’s regulatory structure next year.

Virginia moves toward banning capital punishment, in a shift for prolific death penalty state