Virginia Governor Proposes Plan to Legalize Pot by July

Following weeks of fast but hard fought debate, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam offered “equitable” amendments to the state’s marijuana legalization bill Wednesday.

Marijuana grows at an indoor cannabis farm in Gardena, Calif., in 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia Governor Ralph Northam Wednesday asked the state’s legislature to fast-track attempts to legalize the simple possession marijuana in the commonwealth and suggested amendments to the bills that would do so, including proposals relating to public health and labor protections.

“Our Commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way,” Northam said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”

The state’s legalization effort unfolded at a breakneck pace during the two-month long 2021 General Assembly session, which ended late last month. And while a consensus on the bill, a promise made by Northam and Democratic leaders as part of a broader criminal justice reform effort, was reached it didn’t happen until the final day of session. 

The reconciled bill was then sent to Northam’s desk where he had the option to sign off on it or offer amendments.

Wednesday’s announcement clarifies his proposed amendments, including shifting the start date for full legalization to July 1, 2021, as well as other points aiming to “advance public health protections, set clear expectations for labor protections in the cannabis industry, and begin to seal criminal records immediately.” 

Northam pointed to a report that found, despite the state decriminalizing possession last summer, Black Virginians were still facing three times the number of charges relating to the drug. 

A press release from the governor’s office clarifies a person may possess only one ounce without the intent to distribute and someone can still face penalties if they are caught smoking while driving or are in possession in a school zone among other “common sense” violations. 

It also includes immediate funding for a public awareness campaign as well as systems for law enforcement to detect “drugged driving.”

Advocates had pushed back on parts of the continued criminality of legalization plan, specifically a reenactment clause that would force legislators to vote on criminal specifics a second time while the business side of the effort was wrapped up in the first round of voting.  Newport News-area Delegate Cia Price, who abstained from voting on the bill the last time over such issues, said talks she’s had with the administration have since calmed her fears.

“It was a horrible message to send for a supposed ‘justice bill,’” Price, a Black Democrat, said in a text message, adding she expected amendments from the governor that would “restore faith in the work we are trying to do to acknowledge and repair the damage from the war on drugs in communities like mine.”    

Legal homegrow of up to four plants per household will also go into effect July 1. 

The bill also has some red meat for the chambers’ most progressive elected officials. It adds additional worker protections for employees of marijuana businesses by authorizing the state’s new Marijuana 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.”

Beyond reconciling issues with elected holdouts, Wednesday’s announcement showed broad consensus from Democratic leadership in both chambers as well as some from across the aisle. 

“The Governor’s amendments are another step towards ending the targeting of minority communities over marijuana-related offenses and enacting a framework for the legal sale and use of cannabis,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, a Democrat from Fairfax.

“Following the example of several other states, the Governor’s amendments allow us to set up a safe, regulated, and equitable market while immediately protecting communities of color,” said Senate President Pro Tempore and Richmond-area Democrat Louise Lucas.

The amendments also appeased concerns from Montross-area Republican state Senator Richard Stuart and state Senator Jill Vogel, a Republican from Warrenton. Both previously voted against the bill but found their concerns alleviated in Northam’s new proposal.  

“These amendments provide needed support and training to law enforcement and address concerns I originally had about the legislation,” said Stuart.

Both chambers will now have to consider the amendments and offer a final vote to push them into law. That debate will take place during an upcoming veto session which has yet to be scheduled by Northam. 

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