Virginia lawmakers send marijuana legalization bill to Gov. Northam

Virginia Politics

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – The Virginia General Assembly voted to pass legislation Saturday that calls for the legalization of recreational marijuana use and retail sales to begin in 2024, but one key Democrat stressed that the approved bill was just a step in a long process.

The Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, both under Democratic control, adopted conference reports after hours of debate and private discussion over the legislation.

Even without full support from Democrats, the Virginia House voted 47-44 to approve the compromise and legalize marijuana in 2024. One state delegate abstained. The Virginia Senate narrowly approved the measure, 20-19, with state Sen. Chap Peterson (D-Fairfax) voting against it.

Under the agreement reached by negotiators in the Virginia Senate and House, simple possession would still come with a $25 civil penalty for a first offense until retail sales begin on Jan. 1, 2024, and another vote in the General Assembly next year will determine several other components.

Lawmakers who spoke before the vote took time to address the fact that the bill would take years to go into effect, requires more state-funded reports and a new legislature would eventually vote on several key regulatory details.

State Sen. Richard H. Stuart (R-Stafford) questioned how the average Virginian would be able to understand the different aspects of the 264-page compromise report when those in the chamber couldn’t go over each detail. He made it clear that people wouldn’t be able to grow it in their back yard and can’t have a certain amount until after several other steps over years.

Democrats conceded it was just a first step in the process, with even skeptical lawmakers deciding to vote for the bill.

“We need to make it clear, this bill is not legalization,” state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), a gubernatorial contender said. “There are a lot of steps for legalization.

Advocacy groups that support legalization said before the vote that the compromise failed to address social and racial justice concerns that initially drove the effort and called on legislators to reject the bill.

A re-enactment clause in the compromise report, one of the main sticking points in the negotiations, will require the state legislature to vote again next year on specifics surrounding the regulatory structure for legal sales and remaining criminal justice components of the bill. 

Groups that back legalization shared concerns over the penalty for simple possession remaining in place and an open container clause in the legislation, arguing that racial disparities in enforcement, even with decriminalization, still exist.

Justice Forward Virginia, Marijuana Justice, ACLU Virginia and RISE for Youth voiced their displeasure with the compromise after details were reported, calling it “worse than the status quo.”

“This bill does not advance the cause of equal justice or racial justice in Virginia. It is the product of a closed-door legislative process that has prioritized the interests of recreational marijuana smokers over people and communities of color,” the groups said in a joint statement. “The bill is a failure and we urge lawmakers to vote against it.”

Sen. McClellan echoed that sentiment on the Senate floor on Saturday, questioning the chamber’s ability to fully comprehend and vote on a 264-page compromise report and raising concerns concerning the disproportionate fines that Black Virginians still face with decriminalization. The question compelled the bill’s patron and one of the conferees in the conference committee, state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), to ask for the debate to go by momentarily.

After a recess and a long debate, the chamber followed the House and approved the conference report.

The compromise also calls for a possible misdemeanor charge, with a $250 fine, for anyone found guilty of driving with a partially open container of marijuana or marijuana product along with “the appearance, conduct, speech, or other physical characteristic,” except for odor, of marijuana consumption.

Another difference, a non-binding referendum where Virginians would share whether they support legalization, did not make the final agreement, one person familiar with the agreement told 8News.

If the new General Assembly, which is expected to be different with all 100 House seats up for grabs, rejects the measure, simple possession would still be legal but retail sales would not. 

Legalization was presented as a major agenda item for Northam and Virginia Democrats before this year’s session. The Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, both under Democratic control, each passed legislation on Feb. 5 to legalize use and possession for those 21 years and older.

While the bills had similarities, including an automatic expungement process for misdemeanor convictions and establishing the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority by July to oversee the legal industry, legislators were expecting that a conference committee negotiation would be needed to work out the final details. 

With the special session ending Monday, lawmakers had until Saturday to finish their work on the legislation. The bill now goes to Northam, who was actively involved and “personally working closely” with lawmakers to get the bill passed this year, according to his spokesperson.

“Passing legislation this year ensures that the new Cannabis Control Authority and the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board can get up and running in 2021. The CCA will be responsible for writing regulations immediately and issuing licenses in future years,” Alena Yarmosky, Northam’s spokeswoman, told 8News in an email Saturday. “The Reinvestment Board will be made up of community leaders and will ensure that the state keeps social equity front and center in future years. These two organizations will provide much needed expertise and leadership in 2021 and the future, as legislators and others continue to refine details of what legalization will look like.”

Democrats said they hoped Northam would add amendments, including one to repeal the penalty for simple possession in July, as the Senate’s version had before the conference committee.

The Virginia NAACP initially denounced the agreement, saying it would only exacerbate criminal justice issues that prompted the calls for legalization before the legislative session. But issued a second statement applauding the effort to remove certain concerning aspects of the compromise.

“We are grateful that legislators successfully removed the most concerning aspects of the proposed legislation,” Robert N. Barnette Jr., the president of the Virginia NAACP, said in a statement. “While the final conference report is not perfect, it’s a step in the right direction and we hope legislators will move forward with its passage.”

The compromise also includes an opt-out clause for localities to decide whether or not to allow retail sales through a referendum that must be certified by Dec. 31, 2022.

Stay with 8News for updates. 

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