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Northam Looks to Move Up Marijuana Legalization to July 1

A marijuana plant in netting at a grow site in Richmond
A cannabis plant at gLeaf in Richmond, Virginia. The company is one of four processors currently cultivating and selling medical marijuana products in Virginia. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

Additional reporting by Whittney Evans.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to ask the legislature to legalize the adult possession of an ounce or less of marijuana beginning on July 1, according to several sources with knowledge of the administration’s ongoing discussions with lawmakers. 

Lawmakers passed legislation last month that wouldn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2024. That roadmap that got a cold reception from criminal justice advocates.

Northam’s spokesperson, Alena Yarmosky, did not directly respond to questions on the governor’s plans. But in an interview with VPM on Wednesday, Northam suggested he wanted a faster timeline.

“I personally don't think we should be arresting or penalizing somebody for something we're getting ready to legalize,” Northam said. “I plan to place a number of amendments in front of the legislature and hopefully we’ll be able to move those forward.”

Northam has until the end of this month to send his amendments back to the legislature. The two chambers will take those up on April 7 for what is typically a one-day “veto session.”

Last year, lawmakers reduced the penalties for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana to a $25 civil fine. Racial disparities still persist, and criminal justice advocates have called for that fine to be removed entirely. 

Any changes Northam makes to the bill still need to be approved by Democratic majorities in the legislature. 

It may take several years for the state to set up a regulatory framework and issue licenses to marijuana retailers. Under the existing bill, lawmakers will have to review much of that framework when they meet again next year.

In other states, existing medical dispensaries have been allowed to expand to serve the broader market while that infrastructure is set up to avoid enlarging the black market. Four “processors” that grow, process, and sell cannabis currently serve Virginia’s nascent medical market. 

Some racial justice advocates argue against giving processors a head start in a broader market. They say that setup has enriched large, multi-state companies at the expense of operations run by smaller entrepreneurs, particularly ones living in communities who’ve been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, head of the advocacy group Marijuana Justice, said the 2024 date felt “like a slap in the face of racial justice.”

“With this new change of political will, it shows that the people’s voices do matter and can influence us for the better,” Higgs Wise said.