With Northam’s endorsement, Virginia is poised to speed marijuana legalization to July 1

By: - March 31, 2021 6:01 am

Marijuana grows in Richmond at Green Leaf, a state licensed medical processor and dispensary. (Scott Elmquist/Style Weekly)

Virginians could be harvesting their first legal crops of home-grown marijuana later this year under legislative amendments Gov. Ralph Northam says he’s sending to the General Assembly.

Northam said Wednesday he is proposing changes to the marijuana legalization bill passed by the General Assembly last month that would end the state’s prohibition on the drug beginning July 1 — up from a 2024 date proposed by lawmakers. He says he also wants to allow limited home cultivation to begin at the same time.

“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,” he said in a statement.

It’s a significant shift for Northam, who had initially proposed tying legalization to the beginning of commercial sales — something that won’t start until Jan. 1, 2024.

The three-year delay disappointed civil rights groups, who argued it would only prolong the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws that lawmakers said inspired the legislative push. Ultimately, Northam said he agreed, citing court data that showed Black people remained four times more likely than White people to be cited for possession after the state downgraded the offense to a $25 fine last year.

“The plan to not legalize until 2024 caused a lot of outrage because it clearly did not prioritize the harm that has been done nor the harm that is continuing,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, director of Marijuana Justice, one of several advocacy groups that pushed Northam and lawmakers to change the legislation.

Northam is also proposing budget amendments that will fund what the administration describes as a “public awareness campaign on the health and safety risks of marijuana” and drug recognition training for police officers.

His amendments aim to speed up provisions in the law that will automatically seal records of past misdemeanor marijuana convictions and allow people convicted of more serious charges to petition a judge to expunge them. However, because those efforts will require updating state computer systems as part of a broader expungement initiative, it’s unclear whether the language will make an impact.

Additional language proposes restoring a pro-union section cut from the House version of the bill. It would allow the new Cannabis Control Authority to revoke a company’s business license “if they interfere with union organizing efforts, fail to pay prevailing wage as defined by the United States Department of Labor, or classify more than 10 percent of employees as independent contractors,” according to Northam’s administration.

The language allowing possession beginning July 1 applies to adults age 21 and older. The home cultivation provision calls for limits of four plants per household, which would have to be labeled, kept out of public view and “out of range of individuals under the age of 21.”

The amendments emerged following weeks of discussions between Northam’s administration, the House of Delegates and the Senate.

During the legislative session, disputes over which provisions would make it into the final bill nearly tanked the effort entirely, which Northam has made a focus of his final year in office.

While lawmakers in the Senate backed language legalizing possession beginning July 1, lawmakers in the House were more resistant, worrying it would allow the illicit market to flourish before a legal market could be set up. The Senate, meanwhile, insisted on requiring a second vote next year to finalize regulations surrounding the new marketplace, something House lawmakers, who are all up for reelection later this year, opposed.

Advocates credited Northam with breaking the logjam after the session concluded.

“The most significant change was the administration’s position,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

After Northam signaled his support for moving up the date for legalization last week, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn followed suit.

Members of both chambers say they believe they have the votes to adopt Northam’s amendments.

“Yes, they will pass,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate, who, when the legislative session began earlier this year, doubted he had the votes for a faster implementation timeline. “I think people have really evolved.”

The amendments also appear to have the support of two Republican lawmakers who had opposed the initial legislation. Sens. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, and Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, wrote that Northam’s proposed changes address concerns they had with the original bills, which had passed on a party-line vote.

“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.”

Lawmakers will consider the amendments on April 7.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.