"One emotionally charged debate at a time," quipped Garren Shipley, spokesman for the House GOP leadership.
Lawmakers will have more time to complete work on those and other topics after Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on Thursday called a special session to extend the current session, which had been scheduled to adjourn on Feb. 11, roughly to the end of the month.
The state Senate voted on Wednesday to abolish the death penalty, with all 21 Democrats in favor while 17 Republicans opposed and one abstained. That chamber will take up marijuana legalization on Friday as well.
Northam has made both issues a priority, and Virginia would be the first of the former Confederate states to take either action.
Northam’s plan to legalize marijuana came after two state studies showed that Virginia could reap enormous revenue from a regulated cannabis industry — some $300 million per year, by one estimate.
He proposed a two-year process that would see sales begin in 2023 under the supervision of the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, with retail licenses distributed by a system that ensures participation by people of color. Revenue would be earmarked for education, substance abuse treatment and efforts to mitigate the negative effects of how drug laws have been enforced in communities of color.
The versions up for debate Friday in the House and Senate are slightly different from the legislation that lawmakers originally proposed under Northam’s guidance. Both call for creating a state agency to oversee the industry, and both build in an extra year to get that bureaucracy up and running. Retail sales would begin in 2024.
Both versions contain provisions for expunging past misdemeanor marijuana convictions. The law would apply to adults 21 and older, just as in the 15 other states and District of Columbia that have already legalized the drug.
The bills are long and complex, with arcane differences around industry policy, licensing and other details. Those would be ironed out in a conference committee between the House and Senate.
It’s possible the House version will get some Republican support — it got one GOP vote in committee — but Democrats have the numbers to prevail on their own.
The bill to abolish the death penalty provoked a far harsher political response.
On Thursday in the House, Del. Jason S. Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) made a dramatic argument against the measure on behalf of crime victims. Holding up photo after photo of people who lost their lives to violence, he described horrendous acts of rape, torture and murder, his voice sometimes catching with emotion.
“I hold these photos up so everybody knows the faces of the victims that seem to be absent from these discussions,” Miyares said.
Both the Senate and the House bills establish life without the possibility of parole as the maximum punishment for what are now capital crimes, but they would give judges discretion to impose a lighter sentence..
Del. Michael P. Mullin (D-Newport News), who sponsored the bill and is a prosecutor for the city of Hampton, said there are compelling moral reasons to abolish the death penalty — which, since 1608, has been applied 1,389 times in Virginia, more than any other state.
Over those four centuries, Mullin said, the ultimate punishment was imposed only four times in cases where the victim was Black and the perpetrator was White. All of those have been since 1997, he said.
“The death penalty is profoundly racist,” Mullin said.
Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax) said the litany of horrors raised by Miyares and other Republicans would make anyone angry, but added: “I don’t believe that vengeance is the proper motivation for criminal justice.”
The state, Simon said, should simply not be in the business of killing people. “When we engage in the very behavior we condemn, we degrade our own humanity, our own morality,” he said. “I am proud today to eliminate this stain on our commonwealth.”
Democrats expect to pass the House bill Friday. An identical version has already been passed in the Senate.
Northam has said he will sign the legislation when it is sent to him, which cannot happen until at least one bill is approved by both chambers; his call Thursday for a special session is designed to help lawmakers finish that and hundreds of other bills.
Democratic leaders had intended to hold a 46-day session after convening Jan. 13, as is customary on odd-numbered years, but the Republican minority used a parliamentary procedure to keep it to 30 days.
Democrats had suggested that Northam could simply extend the session to get all that done, and had plotted the schedule accordingly.
Friday is “crossover day,” traditionally the midpoint of a session, when each chamber must wrap up work on its own legislation and turn to bills produced by the other chamber.
Without Northam’s action, lawmakers would have had less than a week to tackle more than three weeks’ worth of bills.
The current plan is to adjourn the regular session early on Monday, complete some necessary procedural tasks, and then convene in special session on Wednesday, according to Democratic leaders.
Northam did not set a time limit on the special session, but lawmakers said they expect to keep to a traditional schedule and wrap up by the end of the month. The part-time legislature meets for 60 days during even-numbered years.