Virginia lawmakers vote to legalize marijuana

Capitol Connection

FILE – In this Aug. 15, 2019, file photo, marijuana grows at an indoor cannabis farm in Gardena, Calif. Utah’s first medical marijuana dispensary is set to open Monday, March 2, 2020, as the state begins a slow rollout of a program that will allow residents with certain health conditions to use the plant for medicinal purposes. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — State lawmakers voted to legalize marijuana Friday, deciding legal sales will start in 2024 but not yet settling on key details as the push to make Virginia the first Southern state to authorize recreational use continues.

Each chamber of the General Assembly, both under Democratic control, passed legislation to legalize use and possession for those 21 years and older. Making his own proposal for legalization ahead of the 2021 session, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is likely to sign the measure if it were to get to his desk.

Two Republicans abstained and one didn’t vote but the House passed its bill 55-42. Hours later, state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), an OB-GYN, and state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) voted with Democrats in the Senate for a 23-15 bipartisan vote.

Despite its approval, questions remains over whether the legislature should allow possession before legal sales begin.

The House’s version of Northam’s proposal, formally introduced by House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), would maintain the civil penalty enacted with decriminalization until 2024.

The Senate’s bill, introduced by state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) and Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), would allow for simple possession without any penalty starting in July.

“If we know we’re going down the road of legalizing, it seems to me that the repeal of simple possession at a minimum should take effect July 1 of this year,” state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond, a gubernatorial contender who proposed repealing the penalty, said during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting in January.

Republicans in the Senate were critical of social equity provisions in the bill giving those impacted, specifically those who have been living in areas dealing with over policing and the effects of the illegal market, with low or no-interest loans and priority as licenses are distributed.

State Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg) attacked Northam’s administration, saying he found it “inexcusable” that they “worked harder to get THC into the bloodstream” of Virginia’s minority communities than the COVID-19 vaccine. Peake cited reporting showing gaps in the commonwealth’s reporting of vaccine data regarding ethnicity and race.

Ebbin took offense to the claim, telling the chamber the administration has worked hard in its vaccine rollout, noting that it’s “not related to vaccines at all.”

Northam’s administration had proposed establishing a regulatory system monitored by Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority and a seven member Cannabis Control Advisory Board within the agency to oversee a legal industry.

In the end, the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee approved a recommendation from a marijuana subcommittee adding an amendment to establish a new regulatory agency and mandatory quarterly progress updates.

Lawmakers agreed with experts who said that creating a brand new agency would delay Northam’s goal to begin sales in 2023. Both bills from the Senate and House has an effective date for retail sales to start in 2024.

This story is developing. Check back for updates.

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