Virginia lawmakers agree to legalize marijuana possession but sales face uncertain future

Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- After weeks of tense negotiations, the Virginia General Assembly has agreed to a plan to legalize the possession of recreational marijuana by 2024.

Meanwhile, some uncertainty remains about the future of legal sales, local participation, home growth and criminal penalties after lawmakers approved a deal that largely hinges upon winning majorities in future legislative sessions.

The agreement came this weekend against a looming deadline. At times, some lawmakers privately questioned whether a deal would be reached at all before the session came to an end.

Ultimately, the House and Senate found some middle ground, though it’s not what many advocates had hoped for.

The agreement drew swift push back from Justice Forward Virginia, Marijuana Justice, ACLU Virginia and RISE for Youth, who called the compromise “worse than the status quo.” In a joint statement on Saturday, the groups said it failed to advance the cause of racial justice in Virginia.

“Let us be clear, this bill is not legalization and there are a lot of steps between here and legalization,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) during Saturday’s floor debate. “It’s not worse than the status quo. Could it be better, yes.”

As it stands, the bill would legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana starting on Jan. 1, 2024. Adults 21 and older generally wouldn’t be punished for having less than an ounce. Anything between an ounce and a pound would come with a $25 fine and any amount above that could result in a maximum of 10 months behind bars, according to Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax).

Furthermore, Surovell said the bill establishes a $25 fine explicitly for underage possession of up to a pound, which would also takes effect on Jan. 1, 2024.

Now that Gov. Ralph Northam has an opportunity to make changes, some advocates want to see him move up the legalization of simple possession for adults.

“Governor Northam is grateful to the General Assembly for their hard work, and looks forward to continuing to improve this legislation,” his office said in a statement on Monday.

Robert Barnette, president of the Virginia State Conference NAACP, is among those pushing for the $25 dollar fine currently in place under decriminalization to be removed on July 1, 2021. This effective date was originally in the Senate’s version of the bill but it didn’t survive negotiations.

Barnette said waiting until 2024 to repeal various penalties will likely result in continued disproportionate enforcement against communities of color.

“Why keep criminalizing marijuana until then if you plan to say that this is not a crime?” Barnette said in an interview about the bill on Monday. “It goes a long way but it doesn’t go far enough.”

As passed, the bill also says retail sales can start in 2024 but there’s a catch, according to Surovell.

“There is basically no way to legally obtain recreational marijuana under the way the bill is currently drafted,” Surovell said. “It states that it legalizes the recreational sale as of January 1, 2024 by a licensed provider but it does not authorize anyway to get a license.”

Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), a chief co-patron, said the bill allows for the creation of an oversight agency–the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority–starting this summer. However, no business licenses could be awarded unless the General Assembly votes in favor of the full regulatory structure in the 2022 legislative session.

If that happens, the current bill gives localities the option to ban commercial sales within their borders through a voter referendum that would need to be held by the end of 2022.

Ebbin said the policy around growing weed at home remains unsettled as well. He said the current bill allows each household to have a total of four plants but the provision is also subject to a re-enactment clause.

“When you tell people you can possess up to an ounce I think some people may think this is a green light to grow at home–it is not,” Surovell said.

Additionally, Ebbin said penalties for marijuana use in certain areas–such as cars, schools and in public–aren’t expected to be finalized until next year.

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) didn’t support the Senate’s reliance on a re-enactment clause.

“Unfortunately it was necessary to come to a deal. Otherwise, we would have not had anything. At least this is a step, though it’s not the step I wanted,” Herring said.

The caveat leaves the policy push vulnerable to the will of the electorate. Later this year, all 100 seats in the House of Delegates and the Governor’s Mansion are up for grabs. Republicans generally have not been supportive of legalization so, if Democrats lose ground, it could make the road to recreational sales even more challenging.

Asked if there is a still a possibility that retail sales will not come to fruition in Virginia, Herring said, “Anything is possible but it is highly unlikely.”

“I don’t anticipate that this will fall through because it’s a significant investment to make this happen,” she continued.

Herring is also hoping the marker of simple marijuana possession being legalized by 2024 will pressure future legislatures to follow through with a regulatory framework, no matter which party is in power.

On Saturday, Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) criticized Democrats for rushing through a bill that he said “is not remotely ready for prime time.”

“I think this is one of the most horrendous pieces of legislation that has been jammed through. Hardly anybody gets it,” Norment said. “If we don’t get it, how in the world can we expect the citizens of Virginia to get it?”

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