Gov. Northam pushes to accelerate marijuana legalization in Virginia

Posted at 9:10 AM, Mar 31, 2021

RICHMOND, Va. — Gov. Ralph Northam proposes to accelerate the legalization of simple possession of marijuana to July 1, 2021. The original implementation year is 2024.

Gov. Northam also plans to implement changes that include advancing public health protections, setting clear expectations for labor protections in the cannabis industry, and sealing criminal records immediately.

He plans to amend parts of Senate Bill 1406, sponsored by Senators Adam Ebbin and Louise Lucas, and House Bill 2312, sponsored by Majority Leader Charniele Herring, which legalize the adult-use of marijuana in the Commonwealth.

Gov. Northam says that the Commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way.

“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. I am grateful to the advocates and legislators for their dedicated work on this important issue, and I look forward to this legislation passing next month,” Northam said.

Ina November 2020 study, provided by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, researchers found that Black Virginians were more than three times as likely to be arrested for simple possession of marijuana.

According to the news release, court data shows these findings have trended up since the simple possession of marijuana was “decriminalized,” punishable with a $25 civil fine, on July 1, 2020.

Officials say this is the driving force behind Gov. Northam's decision to propose the advancement of legalization by three years. Sales won't become legal until 2024 under the proposal.

Gov. Northam proposed the following legislative changes:

  • Public health: Gov. Northam first wants immediate funding for a public awareness campaign on the health and safety risks of marijuana. He then wants to provide training to help law enforcement officers recognize and prevent drugged driving. These amendments detail the need for ongoing support for public health education.
  • Worker protections: This amendment could authorize 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.
  • Ending disproportionate enforcement: These amendments would allow adults to legally possess up to one ounce of cannabis, without intent to distribute, beginning July 1, 2021. These amendments would maintain current public safety measures that prohibit smoking while driving.
  • Speeding up sealing of records and expungements: The amendments allow for expungement and sealing of criminal records on marijuana to begin as soon as state agencies are able to do so and simplify the criteria for when records can be sealed. The General Assembly passed broader legislation to implement comprehensive expungement reform beginning in 2025. This generational change requires extensive updates to state agency computer systems and processes, which were made possible by funding in the Governor’s introduced budget. In the coming months, Gov. Northam will continue to work hand in hand with legislators to make Virginia’s criminal justice system more equitable, including through efforts to resentence individuals previously convicted for marijuana offenses.
  • Home cultivation: The governor’s changes will allow households to grow up to four plants beginning on July 1, 2021. The amendments would require the plants to be labeled with identification information, out of sight from public view, and out of range of individuals under the age of 21.

Still, discussions with lawmakers continue. Del. Steve Heretick (D-Portsmouth) worries having a multi-year gap between legalization of possession and sales could create some problems. "As we have seen in other states when there is a gap between legalized possession and legal sales, there is a black market industry that crops up in-between," Heretick told News 3.

The gap is to allow the state to set up an entirely new regulatory agency to oversee sales. Heretick believes a current state agency could oversee sales, which would speed up the process. "I certainly applaud the governor's plan. He's done exactly the right thing and he's going down the right path," he said. "My point is we could do it faster overall, and we should."

Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News) said the gap will give lawmakers time to get the regulations right. "The time frame that we have between the legalization and actual establishment of a sales entity is similar to other states," she said. "They didn't see too much of an increase in a black market, but what it does is make sure that we get those regulations right."

Price didn't vote when the bill was called during the General Assembly session, saying the original bill favored business over criminal justice. She says the amendments are a step in the right direction. "We still have work ahead of us. This isn't a total win, but like I said, those conversations will continue," she said.

Related: Hampton Roads lawmakers, residents react to vote legalizing marijuana in Virginia starting in 2024

Others, though, remain opposed to legalization, including the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. "The General Assembly already noted that it will take time to pass laws and adopt regulations to address the many impacts of legalization, including our chief concern, impaired driving," the group said in a statement.

Lawmakers will decide whether to accept Northam's amendments on April 7.