Virginia legalizes marijuana after Lt. Gov. breaks tie vote

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/WAVY) — The Virginia General Assembly gave final approval to a bill to legalize simple possession of marijuana and limited home growth beginning July 1, 2021, three years sooner than initially planned. 

The accelerated timeline won a majority in the House and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) broke a 20-20 tie in the Senate on Wednesday during a session dedicated to the consideration of Gov. Ralph Northam’s budget and bill amendments.

The vote makes Virginia the first state in the South to green-light recreational cannabis and the 17th state overall, plus D.C. Virginia follows New York in legalization. Recreational sales still wouldn’t be legal until 2024.

Lawmakers had initially agreed to legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for adults 21 and older starting in 2024. That’s still when recreational sales are expected to begin in Virginia pending additional approval in next year’s legislative session. Lawmakers need to vote again on the regulatory framework before any business licenses can be awarded.

Last week, Northam revived previous efforts to remove the $25 penalty for simple possession starting this summer, citing data suggesting that unequal enforcement against people of color has continued under marijuana decriminalization. 

Northam’s amendments also authorized the growth of up to four pot plants per household beginning July 1. Virginians 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. 

“I think providing a safe, legal means for folks to produce while we set up the regulatory framework is important,” said Sen. Jeremy McPike (D-Prince William). 

When the new law takes effect this summer, Virginians will still be barred from smoking in public and in a vehicle. Penalties remain for youth use and possession on school property.

Although Northam proposed immediate funding for a public health campaign on the risks of cannabis and police training to identify drugged driving, some Republicans said the new timeline doesn’t give law enforcement enough time to prepare. 

Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) generally raised concerns with the speed at which the legislature is approving sweeping changes proposed by Northam.

“There is a right way and a wrong way to do this. We are doing this the wrong way by trying to rush another bill with more than 50,000 substantial changes,” Reeves said. 

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle admit additional work needs to be done to clarify when someone can be punished for driving with an “open container” of marijuana. 

Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said the original language was crafted with the expectation that simple possession and recreational sales would be legalized at the same time, meaning cannabis would be sold in sealed retail packages. 

“We are definitely going to have to come back and look at that again next session to further refine the concept,” Surovell said. “The safest course of action for anybody is after July 1, if you have marijuana in your car, you should probably keep it in your trunk.”

The bill as amended by Northam also calls for the automatic expungement of past misdemeanor marijuana convictions to begin as soon as possible, giving the state flexibility to move forward as soon as system updates are complete. A petition process will also be created for more serious convictions, according to Surovell.

Republicans like Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) raised issue with a last-minute push to include workers protections that Democrats argue are in line with federal law. 

Northam’s amendments allow 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 10 percent of employees as independent contractors.” 

“The business community in my region and across the state of Virginia are very upset. They see this as a back door way to appease labor unions,” Sen. DeSteph said. 

The bill passed following a last-minute push to win over a few votes in the Senate. 

Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) was a definite no going into Wednesday’s session.

“I voted for decriminalization and frankly I’m OK with legalization, but this creation of an industry is something I oppose,” Petersen told WRIC.

Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) threatened to withdraw his support without assurance that the General Assembly would eliminate most mandatory minimum sentences in the future–something they failed to do this year. 

After a 30 minute recess, Morrissey got on board. 

“I have a commitment from both the governor’s office and my own caucus that they are 100 percent, absolutely behind me in moving forward to the elimination of mandatory minimums,” Morrissey told WRIC before the final vote. 

After the General Assembly passed the marijuana legislation, Attorney General Mark Herring praised the measure in a news release.

Herring said: “Decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana last year was such an important first step, but, unfortunately, while the penalty was lessened, the disparate impact on Black and brown Virginians remained,” said Attorney General Herring. “In order for us to truly address the disproportionate impact Virginia’s marijuana policies have on Black Virginians and communities of color, we must have full legal, regulated adult use in the Commonwealth. Accelerating the effective date of legal possession of small amounts of marijuana means that we will not force Black Virginians and communities of color to suffer under this disparate impact any longer. I am incredibly proud to have played a role in helping Virginia get on a path towards legalization and I want to thank all the partners and advocates who have helped us in this important endeavor.”

The amendments were among many by proposed by Northam, including 18 to the state budget. Other amendments deal with COVID-19 relief and money for an independent investigation into alleged illegal activity by the state Parole Board.

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