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Push to end marijuana prohibition this year instead of 2024 hinges on Northam

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The marijuana plant

An increasingly vocal group of Virginia lawmakers and advocates is urging Gov. Ralph Northam to send down a legislative amendment that would make marijuana legal this year.

The General Assembly recently passed a bill to legalize the drug beginning in 2024 — a three-year delay that was met with disappointment by a contingent of Democratic lawmakers, eight of whom refused to vote for the bill over concerns it didn’t do enough to address racial disparities in arrests and citations.

“I am encouraging my colleagues to join me in asking the governor to #LegalizeMarijuana on July 1, 2021,” wrote Sen. Louise Lucas, D-18th, of Portsmouth, in a tweet this week. “Kicking the can down the road has the effect of continued over policing people of color.”

Virginia reduced the penalty for marijuana possession to a $25 fine last summer, but court records show Black people are still four times more likely than White people to receive a citation despite the fact there is no significant difference in use between the two groups.

The Senate’s version of this year’s legalization bill aimed to address that unequal enforcement by ending the prohibition on possessing and using the drug beginning in July, but the language was rejected by the House of Delegates.

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-46th, of Alexandria, who carried the legislation in the House, has said she worried making the drug legal before businesses could be licensed to sell it would encourage the illicit market. She and others have said they view reducing the penalty for possession to a small fine as a sufficient interim step. (Herring’s communications director, Liddy Gallagher, did not respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment this week.)

Northam, meanwhile, has so far avoided weighing in, but the original language his administration proposed also delayed legalization until retail sales could begin.

“We did not draw a line in the sand on this issue — we were focused on keeping folks at the table so we could get this bill across the finish line,” Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said in an email. “We’re continuing to listen to the priorities of both chambers as we work on improving this bill between now and the reconvened session.”

Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, said this week that Northam has not ruled out speeding up the timeline, but said conversations with lawmakers in the House and Senate are just beginning.

Del. Don Scott, D-80th, of Portsmouth, said he was trying to be a “good teammate” by not raising the issue when the measure was before the General Assembly, citing intense disagreement between House and Senate lawmakers that nearly derailed the entire bill.

But now that the legislation is before Northam, he has joined Lucas and other lawmakers in publicly calling for Northam to amend it.

Scott said his position has been influenced by the court data showing disparate enforcement has continued since lawmakers voted to decriminalize the drug last year. The data, which was first obtained from the Supreme Court of Virginia by a coalition of advocacy groups, shows police around the state issued more than 4,500 citations in the second half of last year.

And in most localities, Black people were far more likely than White people to receive a citation. The disparity was particularly stark just north of Richmond in Hanover County, where Black people make up just 10% of the population but accounted for more than 60% of the 240 tickets issued.

The department’s spokesman, Lt. James Cooper, said in an email race plays no role in enforcement and that many of those citations were issued to non-residents, which he suggested could account for the disparity.

“We not only serve the citizens of Hanover County, we also serve a very transient community,” he said.

For lawmakers, however, the data raises a red flag.

“If it was being enforced evenly, I would say that we may have a moment to wait,” Scott said. “But we can’t continue to stand by while this injustice continues.”

He said he thinks concerns about the illicit market are overblown.

“We already have a very healthy, thriving black market,” he said. “I can’t see it getting any worse.”

If Northam does propose amendments, lawmakers would approve or reject them during the assembly’s reconvened session on April 7.

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