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Possession of marijuana could be legal in Virginia by the summer

Posted at 6:00 AM, Mar 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-01 06:34:41-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Simple possession of marijuana could be legal in the state of Virginia by this July -- three years sooner than previously planned in the General Assembly's bills.

Governor Ralph Northam announced Wednesday he is adding amendments to Senate Bill 1406 and House Bill 2312 to legalize adult-use of marijuana sooner than planned in an effort to address the inequitable enforcement of marijuana laws on Black Virginians.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) released a report in November of last year that found Black individuals in Virginia were more than three times as likely to be arrested for simple possession than white individuals, based on data from 2010 to 2019.

The report also found Black individuals were convicted at a much higher rate -- 3.9 times higher than white individuals.

Even with the decriminalization of simple possession of marijuana last July, this trend has continued, according to Northam's office.

That's why Northam said he's making the following changes to the bills:

  • Public health: Northam is proposing two budget amendments. The first would immediately funds a public awareness campaign on the health and safety risks of marijuana. The other measure would fund training to help law enforcement officers recognize and prevent drugged driving. The amendments also include explicit language directing ongoing support for public health education.
  • Worker protections: The amendments 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 10% of employees as independent contractors.
  • Ending disproportionate enforcement: The amendments would allow adults to legally possess up to one ounce of cannabis, without intent to distribute, beginning July 1, 2021. These amendments would maintain current public safety measures that prohibit smoking while driving, smoking while driving a school bus and possession on school grounds, for example.
  • Speeding up sealing of records and expungements: The amendments 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. The General Assembly passed broader legislation to implement comprehensive expungement reform beginning in 2025. Northam said this generational change requires time-consuming updates to state agency computer systems and processes, which were made possible by funding he introduced budget.
  • Home cultivation: The changes would allow households to grow up to four plants beginning on July 1, 2021. The amendments would require the plants to be labeled with identification information, out of sight of public view, and out of range of individuals under the age of 21.

Lawmakers will reconvene on April 7 to decide on Northam's proposed amendments.

Senators Adam Ebbin and Louise Lucas and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring -- who sponsored the Senate and House bills to legalize marijuana, respectively -- voiced their support of the amendments via press release.

“Legalization of personal possession and cultivation for adults 21 and older ought to take place this year and not be tied to retail sales, which won’t happen for some time," said Jenn Michelle Pedini, the executive director for Virginia NORML. The group has pushed for marijuana reform in the Commonwealth for years.

“We're really pleased," Pedini added.

But those who don't support Northam's amendments or marijuana legalization, like Hopewell Police Chief Kamran Afzal, said his department and others need more time to prepare for these new laws.

“This is going to be one more thing that I know that we're not going to be ready by July 1 at all," said Afzal. "We are already behind the curve ball with all the other things that we are mandated to do."

Afzal was a police chief in Colorado after marijuana was legalized, and he’s also worried about safety.

"From, you know, increasing use of marijuana in our youth, DUIs," he noted. "Colorado's numbers for fatalities increased by almost three times where cannabis was present."

But Pedini and Virginia NORML said research does not show marijuana will increase drug-impaired driving crashes.

"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has done significant studies on this ,and that is simply not what the data bears out," Pedini said.