Virginia stood poised to become the first Southern state to legalize marijuana after lawmakers approved a bill aimed in part at ending disparate treatment faced by people of color in the criminal justice system.
The bill, sent to Gov. Ralph Northam, would permit possession and retail sales of pot effective in 2024. Some lawmakers and advocacy groups, however, complained the waiting period needlessly extends unjust treatment. The bill drew a thumbs-down from the ACLU of Virginia.
“The Virginia General Assembly failed to legalize marijuana for racial justice,” the group said in a statement. “Lawmakers paid lip service to the communities that have suffered decades of harm caused by the racist ‘War on Drugs’ with legislation that falls short of equitable reform and delays justice.”
Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said the state has taken an important step toward legalization, adding that the governor wants to improve the legislation.
“There’s still a lot of work ahead, but this bill will help to reinvest in our communities and reduce inequities in our criminal justice system,” she said.
Last week New Jersey officially legalized recreational marijuana when Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law three bills putting into effect a ballot question overwhelmingly supported by voters last year. More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia allow recreational marijuana use.
Last year, Virginia lawmakers decriminalized marijuana, making simple possession a civil penalty that can be punished by a fine of no more than $25. Lawmakers also ordered a commission to study and make recommendations for how Virginia should legalize and regulate the growth, sale and possession of marijuana.
The commission focused on policies to redress historic inequities and racial injustice. The study, released in November, showed that from 2010–2019, the average arrest rate of Black people for marijuana possession was 3.5 times higher than the arrest rate for white people. The commission made specific recommendations for legalization with a focus on justice.
“I would say that we’re on the path to an equitable law allowing responsible adults to use cannabis,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, the chief sponsor of the Senate bill, after it was passed Saturday.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan expressed disappointment that her proposed amendment to legalize possession on July 1 failed to make the final bill. The amendment would have ended punishments for people with small amounts of marijuana, but House Democrats argued that legalization without a legal marketplace for marijuana could promote the growth of the black market.
McClellan said she encouraged Northam to add the amendment to the bill he signs to “address the disproportionate penalization” communities of color have faced.
McClellan said the state has a “long way to go to enact marijuana legalization in an equitable way that redresses the harms of prohibition on Black and brown communities.” McClellan also backed an amendment to give formerly incarcerated individuals priority for commercial distribution licenses.
“The bill we passed today moves the ball forward, but let’s be clear: This is not marijuana legalization,” McClellan said. “It sets up a framework to get us on a path to legalization in 2024.”
Under the legislation, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana will become legal the same day sales begin and regulations will go into effect to control the marijuana marketplace in Virginia. The legislation will require a second vote from the General Assembly next year, but only on the regulatory framework and criminal penalties for several offenses, including underage use and public consumption of marijuana.
A second vote will not be required on legalization.
“While the final conference report is not perfect, it’s a step in the right direction,” Virginia State Conference NAACP President Robert Barnette said. “The Virginia NAACP will not rest until full equity and restorative justice is achieved.”
Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML – National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws – called the vote “another historic step” for cannabis justice in Virginia.
“Stakeholders, the administration, and the Legislature have dedicated hundreds of hours to craft legislation that is just and equitable,” Pedini said. “That will replace the failed policy of cannabis prohibition with one that promotes Virginia’s economy as well as Virginians’ public health and safety.”
Contributing: The Associated Press