Northam Moves To Bump Up Marijuana Legalization to July
This article was updated March 31, at 12:20 p.m., with statements from advocacy groups.
Gov. Ralph Northam is amending Virginia’s marijuana legislation to allow simple possession of marijuana starting July 1, three years ahead of schedule.
Lawmakers passed a bill last month that was slated to take effect on Jan. 1, 2024.
In an interview with VPM last week, Northam said 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.”
The proposed changes to the bill include a budget amendment to fund a public awareness campaign on the health and safety risks of marijuana as well as training to help law enforcement officers recognize and prevent drugged driving.
“These amendments provide needed support and training to law enforcement and address concerns I originally had about the legislation,” said Republican Sen. Richard Stuart.
The amendments also implement worker protections and speed up the expungement and sealing of past criminal records on marijuana.
The changes will need to be approved by Democratic majorities in the legislature.
Northam has until Wednesday to send his amendments back to lawmakers. The two chambers will take those up on April 7 for what is typically a one-day “veto session.”
“Governor Northam’s amendments will stop the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws beginning this summer, while also focusing on public safety and educating our youth,” said Majority Leader Charniele Herring. “This is a very important step for equity, and I’m grateful for the governor’s leadership.”
Democratic Del. Lamont Bagby, chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, also weighed in.
“I’m pleased with the improvements the governor has proposed,” he said. “We are doing everything possible to repair and redress the harm done to communities of color most impacted by marijuana criminalization—the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus stands in support of the governor’s amendments because justice must not be delayed.”
Groups that advocated for legalization, including ACLU of Virginia, Marijuana Justice, RISE for Youth, and Justice Forward VA, released a joint statement Tuesday. They said the governor’s proposal is a step toward ending “racist marijuana law enforcement.” And they urged the legislature to approve the amendments.
“The legal market will take time to set up, but this amendment stops Black and Brown Virginians from being needlessly punished in the meantime. This is an historic milestone for racial justice and civil rights, following years of campaigning from advocates and community groups and a strong push by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus,” the statement read.
They also criticized the legislation, which still allows youth who are found to be in possession of marijuana, to be subject to probation.
“The possession charges for young people, which remain in the marijuana bill, will feed the school-to-prison pipeline, and be used by courts as a gateway and result in too many Black and Brown youth being placed under probation and surveillance,” the statement read.
Last year, the General Assembly 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.