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Virginia lawmakers OK changes to bill to legalize simple possession of marijuana in July

House Majority Leader: 'The time has come for our state to legalize marijuana'
Marijuana Legalization
Posted at 5:21 PM, Apr 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-07 18:38:13-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Democrat-controlled Virginia General Assembly voted Wednesday to accept Gov. Ralph Northam's proposed changes to a marijuana legalization bill that will allow limited possession and cultivation of the drug starting in July.

Northam sent the bill back to lawmakers substantially changed from the version they sent him February. The amendments lawmakers agreed to Wednesday would accelerate the timeline of legalization by about three years, a move that's been cheered by racial justice advocates.

“The time has come for our state to legalize marijuana. The amendments ensure that while we’re doing the complicated work of standing up a commercial market, we aren’t delaying immediate reforms that will make our Commonwealth more equitable for all Virginians," House Majority Leader Charniele Herring said in urging her colleagues to vote for the governor's changes.

Northam's amendments cleared the House 53-44 with two abstentions. The Senate later deadlocked 20-20 and Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax broke the tie, voting to approve them.

Justin Fairfrax, Travis Hackworth
Virginia Lt. Gov., Justin Fairfax, left, speaks with new State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell, during the Senate reconvene session at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, April 7, 2021. Hackworth replaced Sen. Chafin who died earlier this year. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Republicans, who overwhelmingly opposed the bill when it initially went through the General Assembly, railed against the latest version.

GOP Del. Chris Head called the bill “a train wreck.”

“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.

The governor’s amendments would allow adults 21 and up to legally possess up to one ounce (28.3 grams) of cannabis without the intent to distribute beginning July 1. They would also allow the home cultivation of up to four plants per household beginning July 1.

It will be years before legal retail sales follow. The bill lays out the complex process of creating a new state agency to oversee the marijuana marketplace, with sales beginning and regulations going into effect on Jan. 1, 2024.

During the legislative session, the Senate sought to legalize simple possession beginning in July, but House Democrats initially argued that legalization without a legal market for marijuana could promote the growth of the black market. The bill as passed in July would not have legalized simple possession until 2024.

Herring said Wednesday that home growth would give Virginians a way to legally acquire cannabis while the retail market is being put in place.

Lawmakers also were considering other bills that Northam sent back with proposed amendments during Wednesday's one-day session, including the budget bill, a facial-recognition technology ban, and a bill intended to address a long-running controversy over the state parole board.

They won't have any veto overrides to consider this year. Northam took action on 552 bills from the 2021 session and didn't veto any, according to his office.

The Senate was meeting at a science museum that's been the chamber's host venue during the pandemic to allow for greater social distancing.

The Senate's first order of business was welcoming its newest member, Republican Sen. Travis Hackworth, who won a special election held last month to fill the seat of the late Sen. Ben Chafin. Chafin died in January after contracting COVID-19.

The House was conducting its work virtually, as it did during the regular session.

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