RICHMOND, Va. -- The moment was strictly ceremonial, but when Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation on April 21 that will legalize the simple possession of marijuana for those 21 and up starting July 1, officials said it marks a major step toward racial equity.
“Who’s counting, but 71 days from now, Virginia will no longer police adults for possessing small amounts of marijuana,” Northam said.
A study by JLAC found that Black and Brown Virginians were three times more likely to face a penalty or be arrested for marijuana possession, even though use was similar among all racial and ethnic groups. The disparity rate remained the same even after the Commonwealth decriminalized possession of small amounts in July 2020.
“I think individuals are already using marijuana. Senator Ebbin said it, this goes back centuries. What we’re doing now is we’re just making it equitable and stopping the disproportionate arrest of individuals. So that’s really the message here,” Northam said.
Under the new law, it is legal to possess less than one ounce of cannabis for personal use and grow up to four plants at home in Virginia. Smoking in public, underage use, and driving during or after using marijuana will still be against the law, which the sponsors of the legislation made clear following the ceremony.
“It is illegal to drive while smoking pot now. It will be after July 1. No one should do it,” House Majority Leader Del. Charniele Herring (D - Fairfax) said.
“Smoking in public is not legal. There’s a penalty for smoking in public, and we want to keep it away from young people,” Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) added.
Most Republicans, some law enforcement agencies, and certain substance abuse organizations raised concerns that the new law will lead to higher use among youth, despite legislative guardrails, further expand the black market in Virginia before legal sales begin in 2024, and does not go far enough to prevent abuse and misuse.
Del. Chris Head (R - Roanoke) called the bill “a train wreck,” during debate on the bills earlier this month.
“The hard-fought compromise that barely made it out of this chamber and over to the Senate has just been discarded. And why is that? It’s because some activists want marijuana legalized and they want it legalized now, consequences be damned," he said.
Northam said his message following the ceremonial signing is that Virginia will stop ruining lives and families over small amounts of cannabis.
“An arrest for simple possession can literally follow a person for a very long time,” the Governor said. “It can impact their ability to get jobs or get into school. Unfortunately, arrests can sometimes escalate into something much more dangerous, as we are all aware of lately.”
The new law does include provisions to seal or expunge criminal convictions for certain marijuana offenses prior to the legalization date. However, those provisions are not “effective on or before July 1, 2025,” according to legislative staff.
Herring said courts and state police are already working to start the process on July 1 and the legislature is looking at ways to “speed up” that timeline. Northam said he expected the legislature will consider the issue of those currently serving time for marijuana infractions next session.
“This is a reason we moved forward the date of legalization because why should we be arresting, why should we be penalizing, literally ruining their lives, for something that is going to be legal. It’s something that there is going to be an ongoing dialogue, and we still have a lot of work to do,” the Governor said.
The new law took effect July 1 and can be read in full here.
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