RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-Gov. Ralph Northam wants simple possession of marijuana for adults to be legal by this summer, three years earlier than previously planned.
Gov. Northam is asking the state legislature to approve changes that would allow adults 21 and over to possess an ounce or less without facing a penalty and permit households to grow up to four pot plants starting on July 1, 2021.
If passed, Virginia will be the 16th state, including D.C., to legalize recreational cannabis and the first in the south. On Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed legislation to make New York the 15th state to take this step.
Recreational sales aren’t expected to start in Virginia until 2024 under this legislation, though Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), one of the bill sponsors, said that isn’t set in stone. As amended, lawmakers will still need to vote again next year before any business licenses can be awarded.
“We have to set up the agency so that could change. I hope it won’t but we’re going to do it as expeditiously as possible,” Ebbin said.
The proposals from Northam were made public Wednesday, the last day for the governor to submit amendments to bills passed during this year’s legislative session, and will be taken up by the legislature on April 7 when lawmakers reconvene for a final vote.
Under the governor’s amendments, those growing inside their homes must label their plants, keep them out of public view and out of range of anyone under the age of 21. While having up to an ounce of cannabis won’t come with the penalty, people will not be allowed to distribute or sell any marijuana.
Under the bill previously agreed upon by the General Assembly, home cultivation was subject to re-enactment, meaning it too needed another majority vote in next year’s session to become a reality.
Bill patron and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) said allowing home growth this summer was an important step in getting previously skeptical House members on board with an earlier legalization date for simple possession. Herring said this gives people an avenue to legally obtain marijuana before the recreational industry has matured.
“The home growth amendment was very important. Otherwise we just didn’t think it would be a responsible thing to do,” Herring said. “Members of the House feel more comfortable voting for this now, I certainly will be.”
Herring said she expects the governor’s amendments to pass but she cautioned that lawmakers are still reviewing the changes. Ebbin also expects the Senate to approve the package with bipartisan support.
In addition, Northam calling for automatic expungement of past misdemeanor marijuana convictions to begin as soon as possible. His press release did not specify a date, noting that this “generational change” requires extensive updates to the state’s computer systems and processes.
While more comprehensive expungement reform is coming in 2025, Ebbin said this amendment gives them more flexibility to move forward sooner.
“I think there will be a concerted effort to make it happen sooner,” Herring said.
Virginia NAACP President Robert N. Barnette, Jr. said in a statement that people should not need to wait for an “undetermined, subjective period of time” to have their criminal records sealed.
“We are encouraged that Governor Northam is proposing NAACP-backed changes to the marijuana legislation,” said Barnette. “The Virginia NAACP remains concerned that Virginia’s elected officials continue to prioritize the recreational desires of some while placing restorative justice measures on the back-burner.”
At a vaccination event in Norfolk on Wednesday, Northam said racial justice is at the center of his proposal and his push for an earlier timeline for legal marijuana possession.
“If we’re going to do it we need to do it right,” Northam said. “It’s an issue of equity.”
The administration cited data from a study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) showing Black Virginians were 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession even though usage rates were the same for white and Black residents.
Despite arguments that decriminalization would help combat racial disparities in marijuana arrests, court data shows that Black people in Virginia are roughly four times more likely to be cited for simple possession than white people since the policy took effect in July.
Just over 4,500 people in Virginia were charged with simple possession in general district courts across the commonwealth from July 1, 2020 to Jan. 11, 2021. Court records from the state’s Office of the Executive Secretary, obtained by Justice Forward Virginia’s policy director Bryan Kennedy and independently reviewed by 8News, revealed that 52% of those people were Black and 45% were white.
Marijuana Justice Executive Director Chelsea Higgs Wise raised concerns about the penalties in the bill for public consumption, “open container” in a vehicle, juvenile use and possession on school property.
“That means we will be feeding our kids straight to the school-to-prison pipeline through marijuana quote–unquote legalization. We have the privilege of seeing what New Jersey has done to take children out of the criminal justice system and provide care and not cuffs. That’s what we want Virginia to do,” Wise said.
Herring echoed those priorities in an interview, noting that the criminal penalties will be subject to re-enactment next year. She said this will allow the legislature to look more comprehensively at punishments for controlled substances.
Northam’s office also announced two budget amendments to fund a public awareness campaign on the health and safety risks of cannabis, as well as training for law enforcement to recognize and prevent driving while under the influence.
However, Hopewell Police Chief Kamran Afzal, who also serves on the board of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, has concerns about completing that training by this summer. Afzal said small departments like his are overwhelmed by the slew of recently passed police reforms and additional training requires him to take officers out of the field.
“I think the timeline is definitely way too aggressive,” Afzal said. “I can guarantee you that we are not going to be ready from a law enforcement perspective.”
Afzal, who formerly served as a police chief in Colorado, is generally opposed to legalization, citing concerns over increased youth access and addiction. He said state lawmakers should have waited longer to see the impacts of decriminalization. Afzal noted that his officers aren’t generally giving out fines for simple possession as it stands, as local prosecutors aren’t interested in pursuing misdemeanor marijuana cases.
On Wednesday, some Republicans in the Virginia Senate who voted against the measure voiced support for Northam’s amendments.
“These amendments provide needed support and training to law enforcement and address concerns I originally had about the legislation,” state Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Stafford) wrote in a statement.
The Virginia General Assembly, with two chambers controlled by Democrats, passed its version of the legislation on Feb. 27. Even without full support from Democrats, the Virginia House voted 47-44 to approve the compromise and legalize marijuana in 2024. The Virginia Senate narrowly approved the measure, 20-19, with state Sen. Chap Peterson (D-Fairfax) voting against it
Another amendment from Northam allows the new Cannabis Control Authority, the regulatory body that will oversee the legal industry, to revoke licenses if companies “interfere with union organizing efforts, fail to pay prevailing wage as defined by the United States Department of Labor, or classify more than ten percent of employees as independent contractors,” according a press release.
JLARC’s study found the industry could generate up to $300 million in tax revenue and bring 11,000 jobs to the state.