Gov. Ralph Northam is proposing to accelerate the legalization of simple possession of marijuana in Virginia to July 1, 2021, nearly three years sooner than previously planned.
Under the proposal, Virginians would be able to legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to four plants in their homes beginning this summer. Northam also announced proposed changes to advance public health protections, set clear expectations for labor protections in the cannabis industry and begin to seal criminal records for marijuana possession.
“Our commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way,” Northam said in a Wednesday morning press release. “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.”
The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in February that would legalize simple possession of marijuana beginning July 1, 2024. Lawmakers will consider Northam’s amendments to the bill when they reconvene next week on Wednesday, April 7.
Del. Lamont Bagby, chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said he is “pleased with the improvements the Governor has proposed.”
“We are doing everything possible to repair and redress the harm done to communities of color most impacted by marijuana criminalization—the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus stands in support of the Governor’s amendments because justice must not be delayed,” Bagby, D-74th, said in a statement.
A 2020 report of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, or JLARC, found that Black Virginians were more than three times as likely to be arrested for simple possession of marijuana.
Following the report, Virginia “decriminalized” simple possession of marijuana beginning July 1, 2020, making it punishable with a $25 fine. But data from Virginia courts showed Black Virginians still made up a disproportionate number of those fined for marijuana possession.
Northam said this fact drove his proposal to advance legalization by three years.
In Prince William County, court data shows 129 people were ticketed for marijuana possession between July 1, 2020, and Jan. 11, 2021. Of those, 41% were African American although African Americans make up only 20% of Prince William’s total population.
Additionally, Northam’s proposed amendments to the legislation include funding for a public awareness campaign on the health and safety risks of marijuana and funding to help law enforcement officers recognize and prevent drugged driving.
Those changes to the bill garnered bipartisan support for legalization, including from Northern Virginia region Republican state Sens. Richard Stuart, R-28th, and Jill Vogel, R-27th, both of whom were quoted in Northam’s press rel.
“It’s important that as we take our time to thoughtfully stand up this industry, we also provide clarity and don’t confuse Virginians by punishing them for something that will now be legal,” Vogel said. “These amendments do just that.”
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