Gov. Ralph Northam is sending legislation to legalize marijuana back to the General Assembly with his recommendation that Virginia legalize simple possession this July rather than wait until 2024.
After some last-minute uncertainty about whether lawmakers would approve the bills in the final day of the legislative session, the General Assembly voted in February to legalize marijuana, but not until Jan. 1, 2024, which is when retail sales would start. Legalization advocates expressed frustration the legislature linked legalization and sales, saying the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana possession would continue harm people of color during that period of time.
Northam announced in November he would prioritize legalizing marijuana — making Virginia the first state in the South to do so — this year. This is his final year in office.
“Our commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way,” Northam said in a statement. “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.”
Northam’s amendments would allow adults to legally possess up to 1 ounce of cannabis, without the intent to distribute, beginning July, while maintaining current public safety measures that prohibit activities like smoking while driving and possession on school grounds. He also wants the legislature to approve his recommendation that households 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.
He also wants to expedite the process of sealing criminal records on marijuana as soon as state agencies can do so. The General Assembly passed comprehensive records sealing legislation — which includes some offenses being eligible for automatic sealing — this past session. Some lawmakers expressed frustration that records wouldn’t be able to be sealed until 2025, which is when state agencies said they would be able to prop up a new computer system to handle this new process. Northam hasn’t signed that legislation yet.
Northam plans to work with legislators over the coming months on efforts like re-sentencing people who were previously convicted for marijuana offenses.
Northam’s other proposed changes to the bills include funding a public awareness campaign on the health and safety risks of marijuana and funding training for law enforcement to help them recognize and prevent drugged driving. He also wants to authorize the new Cannabis Control Authority to revoke a company’s business license if they interfere with union organizing efforts, fail to pay the prevailing wage, or classify more than 10% of the employees as independent contractors.
The legislature will reconvene April 7 to take up Northam’s amendments to bills.
“Gov. Northam’s amendments will stop the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws beginning this summer, while also focusing on public safety and educating our youth,” House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said in a statement. “This is a very important step for equity, and I’m grateful for the governor’s leadership.”
The marijuana legalization bills nearly went up in flames during the General Assembly session as lawmakers butted heads over certain provisions. A few Democrats in the House of Delegates didn’t vote for the final legislation, expressing dissatisfaction with various parts of it, including the legalization timeline and whether it does enough to make amends to communities historically over-policed for marijuana-related crimes.
Several Democrats and Republicans say they are pleased with Northam’s changes.
“We are doing everything possible to repair and redress the harm done to communities of color most impacted by marijuana criminalization — the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus stands in support of the governor’s amendments because justice must not be delayed,” said Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico.
Republican Sens. Jill Holtzman Vogel of Fauquier and Richard Stuart of Stafford both said the amendments address some of their concerns about how to thoughtfully legalize marijuana.
“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.
Wednesday is the last day that Northam can make any suggested changes to bills to send back to the General Assembly.
Northam has already signed more than 320 bills into law. Northam still has numerous bills sitting on his desk, including legislation to eliminate the costly, controversial coal tax credits and a measure from Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, to open up law enforcement’s criminal investigative files. He also has a bill providing paid sick leave for home health care workers under Medicaid, a proposal that advocates wanted a more expansive version of but the Senate won’t agree to.
He’s only sent a few bills back to the General Assembly so far. He amended a bill from Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, to create a state-administered retirement plan for workers without access to a 401(k). Right now it only applies to full-time workers, but Northam wants to expand eligibility to part-time workers, something the Senate resisted.