RICHMOND — The General Assembly voted to end criminal penalties for simple possession of marijuana beginning this July, backing Gov. Ralph Northam’s suggestion to accelerate the legalization timeline.
The legislature barely approved bills in February to legalize marijuana and set up a system for retail sales in 2024, with Democrats hoping Northam would send back changes to address various concerns. The Democrat-controlled General Assembly approved several other amendments to the massive marijuana legalization legislation during a one-day session Wednesday to take up the governor’s recommended changes to bills.
“There’s a straightforward injustice to punishing someone for something we agreed should be legal,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria.
Retail sales still will begin in 2024. Households will be permitted to grow up to four plants beginning this July as long as they are properly identified, out of view of the public and out of range of people under 21. A public awareness campaign on the health and safety risk of marijuana and training for law enforcement to help them recognize and prevent drugged driving will begin immediately.
Adult-use of marijuana is only permitted in certain circumstances so public safety standards are maintained. For instance, people can’t smoke marijuana in public and while driving and cannot possess it while on school grounds. People can’t sell an ounce of marijuana, but they can gift an ounce of it.
“This is not going to generate some ganja fest at Jiffy Lube Pavilion out in the parking lot,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.
Lawmakers also signed off on authorizing the new Cannabis Control Authority to revoke a company’s business license if it interferes with union organizing efforts, fails to pay the prevailing wage, or classifies more than 10% of the employees as independent contractors.
The House of Delegates passed the amendments on a party-line vote, while Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, broke ranks in the Senate so that Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, broke the tie to pass the amendments.
A substantial part of the legislation is still subject to the General Assembly having to pass it again next year during its regular legislative session, and it’s not guaranteed that Democrats will retain control of the governorship and House.
Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said he’s been “ambivalent” about legalizing marijuana. He said he grew up in the 1960s when marijuana use was popular in the counterculture, but he said he recognizes Americans’ growing support for legalization.
Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, said the legislation was a “trainwreck” and Democrats were rushing through marijuana legalization this year to avoid being called racist. He worried about the consequences of legalizing recreational use before establishing a legal market.
“By legalizing before we have retail sales in place, we are supercharging illicit sales,” Head said.
Coal tax credits proposal
The legislature also swiftly defeated Northam’s proposal that it promise to spend the savings from the elimination of the controversial coal tax credits on the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.
The projected savings with the elimination of the credits could be $300,000 each year in fiscal years 2023, 2024 and 2025, and then increasing to $6.5 million a year beginning fiscal year 2026. Northam wanted those savings to go toward expanding course offerings in data science, computer science, cybersecurity and renewable energy. The governor can’t require the lawmakers to spend the money this way, so he was hoping to get the legislature to make a commitment.
“You’ll find another way to send it to Northern Virginia, because y’all don’t care about Southside and Southwest Virginia,” said Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin.
The Senate defeated Northam’s amendment on a vote of 14-26, with Democrats casting the only votes in favor. The House didn’t cast votes on the amendment. Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, said passing such a measure would set a “bad precedent.”
“This is a matter for future budget deliberations,” she said. “It can’t be dictated ahead of time.”
Parole Board investigation
The General Assembly also authorized Northam’s request to spend up to $250,000 to conduct a third-party investigation of the Office of the State Inspector General’s handling of the investigation into the Virginia Parole Board’s decision to release Vincent Martin, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1980 for killing of a Richmond police officer.
Republicans complained the investigation was misguided for not looking into the parole board violating the law and procedures when releasing inmates early. Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, called the investigation that Northam proposed a “sham.”
“This is the final act of a cover-up,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.
Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, made a failed attempt at setting up a special committee made up of lawmakers to look into the allegations against the parole board.
“I can’t think of a better way to put politics into this situation than put a bunch of politicians in charge of the investigation,” Surovell said.
Other amended bills
Lawmakers supported most of the amendments the governor sent them. They agreed to apply the start date to when firefighters, law enforcement, correction officers and emergency workers who get sick with COVID-19 can receive workers’ compensation to July 1, 2020. The House and Senate had disagreed on how far back to apply the compensation pay, whether to the start of the pandemic or several months later, because local governments had complained about the high cost.
Both chambers also signed off on tweaking bills to speed up — if possible — when people can begin the process of sealing their criminal records. The General Assembly passed measures to provide for several misdemeanor charges to be eligible for automatic sealing and other misdemeanors for the ability to be sealed through the petition process after so many years of the person maintaining a clean record. Lawmakers had expressed frustration that legislation wouldn’t go into effect until 2025, which is how long the state police and court system said it might take to update its computer system to allow for this new way of dealing with criminal records. If the computer system is up and running sooner, people can have their records sealed.
The legislature’s work is not done this year. It is expected to convene again likely sometime in the summer to figure out how to distribute funds provided to Virginia through the American Rescue Plan Act. Also, the General Assembly will have to fill seven spots on the Virginia Court of Appeals created by one retirement and an expansion of the court by the legislature this year.
“In a time when every facet of our lives has been faced by historic challenges, this body and this government has not wavered in its resolve nor its ability to carry out the people’s work,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said.