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Virginia governor seeks to accelerate marijuana legalization

March 31, 2021 GMT
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FILE - In this March 30, 2021, file photo, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference to announce the expansion of commuter rail in Virginia at the Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) Alexandria Station, in Alexandria, Va. Adults in Virginia could legally possess and grow small amounts of marijuana beginning in July, about three years sooner than initially envisioned, under changes the governor proposed Wednesday, March 31, to legislation passed earlier this year.(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
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FILE - In this March 30, 2021, file photo, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference to announce the expansion of commuter rail in Virginia at the Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) Alexandria Station, in Alexandria, Va. Adults in Virginia could legally possess and grow small amounts of marijuana beginning in July, about three years sooner than initially envisioned, under changes the governor proposed Wednesday, March 31, to legislation passed earlier this year.(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Adults in Virginia could legally possess and grow small amounts of marijuana beginning in July, about three years sooner than initially envisioned, under changes the governor proposed Wednesday to legislation passed earlier this year.

“Our Commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way,” Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam said in a news release outlining the date change and other amendments he is seeking. “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.”

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Advocates on all sides of the issue have been eagerly waiting for weeks to see what changes Northam would propose to the bill that cleared the General Assembly in February.

The measure has been a top priority for Democrats who control the state government, who consider it a necessary step to end the disparate treatment of people of color under current marijuana laws. But lawmakers struggled to reach agreement during the session, passing a bill that almost no one seemed fully satisfied with. It would not have legalized marijuana until 2024, which racial justice advocates said was far too long to wait.

A coalition of advocacy groups — including Marijuana Justice, Justice Forward Virginia, RISE for Youth and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia — hailed the July 1 legalization date as “the first step toward ending racist marijuana law enforcement.” The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus also praised the amendments.

“This important change to the legislation recently passed by the General Assembly will allow the Commonwealth to begin addressing the tragic consequences of communities of color being over-policed in the failed War on Drugs. Marijuana laws are more harshly enforced in Black and Brown communities, and we cannot risk more people being caught in the system for acting in ways that will soon be legal,” the coalition said in a statement.

Northam’s office said his decision to speed up legalization was driven by a state study from last year that found Black Virginians were disproportionately policed and convicted for using marijuana, and by data from state courts that show the trend has continued even since lawmakers decriminalized marijuana last year.

Discussions with lawmakers went down to the wire; Wednesday was Northam’s deadline for taking action on legislation.

His office issued a news release filled with supportive remarks from legislative leaders in both chambers and two Republicans, signaling that his proposed changes have the votes to become law once legislators reconvene in April.

“I am grateful to the advocates and legislators for their dedicated work on this important issue, and I look forward to this legislation passing next month,” Northam said.

The governor’s amendments would allow adults 21 and up to legally possess up to one ounce (28.3 grams) of cannabis without the intent to distribute beginning July 1. They would also allow the home cultivation of up to four plants per household beginning July 1.

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Not all lawmakers support the legislation. Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen voted against the bill and remains skeptical, despite Northam’s amendments.

“I don’t have a problem with decriminalization or even legalizing marijuana in small amounts for adult use, but I’m not a fan of setting up a marijuana industry in this state, which appears to be the purpose of the legislation,” he said.

Northam’s amendments would maintain current public safety measures that prohibit smoking marijuana while driving, smoking while driving a school bus and possession of marijuana on school grounds.

It will be years before legal retail sales follow. The bill, hundreds of pages long, lays out the complex process of creating a new state agency to oversee the marijuana marketplace, with sales beginning and regulations going into effect Jan. 1, 2024.

The bill as passed also calls for dedicating 30% of marijuana tax revenue — after program costs — to a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund. The money would be used to help communities that have been historically over-policed for marijuana crimes, with funds going toward scholarships, workforce development and job placement services, and low- or no-interest loans for qualified cannabis businesses.

Some racial equity advocates said 30% is not enough. Members of the Cannabis Equity Coalition of Virginia said they will lobby lawmakers to increase the amount of money directed to the reinvestment fund to 70% of tax revenues.

“There’s so much that needs to be done — the damage is enormous,” said Marty Jewell, a coalition spokesman.

During the legislative session, the Senate sought to legalize simple possession beginning in July, but House Democrats argued that legalization without a legal market for marijuana could promote the growth of the black market.

Northam announced Wednesday he is seeking two related budget amendments, one to boost funding for a public awareness campaign and the other for funding to help law enforcement officials recognize and prevent drugged driving. He’s also seeking to add worker protections and speed up the sealing of records and expungements.

One would authorize the new Cannabis Control Authority “to revoke a company’s business license if they 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 to a description his office provided.

The full text of the proposed amendments was not immediately available.

The other amendment would “allow for expungement and sealing of criminal records on marijuana to begin as soon as state agencies are able to do so, and simplify the criteria for when records can be sealed,” his office said.