Virginia passes bills to legalize marijuana, abolish death penalty, remove mandatory minimums

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- It was a historic day in Virginia politics as bills to legalize marijuana, abolish the death penalty and eliminate several mandatory minimum sentences passed in the General Assembly. 

These votes are a big step forward but it’s not the end of the road. 

Friday was the midpoint in the session after which no new legislation can be introduced. It was also the last day for the House and Senate to pass bills originating in their chamber before they cross over to the other body for consideration.  

In the coming weeks, the House and Senate will have to iron out differences on key details before these bills can be considered by Gov. Ralph Northam. 

Legalizing marijuana 

The House and Senate passed bills on Friday to legalize retail marijuana sales starting in January of 2024. The vote puts Virginia on the path to becoming the first state in the south to take this step.

Sales will be restricted to adults 21 and older. Identification checks will be required and advertising will be limited to minimize youth exposure. The bills also call for robust substance abuse awareness campaigns.

Penalties remain in place for juvenile possession, driving under the influence, public consumption and illicit sales.

The delayed enactment will give the Commonwealth time to stand up a brand new agency called the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority. The oversight body will seek to promote diverse participation in the industry and facilitate reinvestment in communities most harmed by marijuana prohibition.

Still up for debate is whether simple possession should be legalized before sales. The Senate bill would repeal the $25 dollar fine for having an ounce or less in place under decriminalization starting on July 1, 2021. The House’s version wouldn’t take this step until 2024. 

Both versions create a process for automatic expungement of misdemeanor marijuana convictions.

The bills also authorize home cultivation for personal use, with two mature and two immature plants allowed per household (not per individual). 

The House and Senate still have to decide whether or not localities should be able to opt out of the legal market. As it stands, the Senate bill allows it. The House bill does not but notes that localities would have a say over where and when the product could be sold through the zoning process.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is likely to sign the bill when it gets to his desk, as his Administration played a key role in crafting the legislation.

Abolishing the death penalty

The Commonwealth is also poised to become the first state in the south to abolish the death penalty, another priority of Northam’s Adminstration.

Currently, Virginia is second only to Texas in its use of capital punishment since 1976 with 113 executions.

The bill cleared the Senate earlier this week and won approval in the House of Delegates on Friday after an emotional debate.

The legislation would commute the death sentences of the two offenders currently on death row in Virginia to life without the possibility of parole. It redefines capital murder as aggravated murder and requires a judge to sentence every person convicted moving forward to life in prison.

A judge could suspend some of the sentence later on, except in cases of aggravated murder of a law enforcement officer.

Eliminating mandatory minimums

Bills to eliminate several mandatory minimum sentences also passed in the House and Senate on Friday–another piece of a broader effort to reduce mass incarceration.

Last month, the Virginia Crime Commission endorsed eliminating all mandatory minimum sentences but neither the House nor the Senate ultimately went that far.

The House’s bill doesn’t include any violent crimes, sex offenses, firearms offenses or DUI convictions.

Right now, the Senate’s bill only excludes capital murder.

The debate over what the final version will look like is expected to play out in the coming weeks. The bill is likely to include a petition process allowing those currently serving mandatory minimums to have their sentences reduced.

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