Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia plans to sign a bill passed by state lawmakers to legalize marijuana, according to media reports, but he may amend the measure to move up the start date for the legalization of cannabis possession. Virginia legislators reached a compromise on legalizing cannabis in the state late last month with the passage of House Bill 2312.
But a provision of the measure widely criticized by criminal justice reform advocates delays the legalization of marijuana possession until legal retail sales of adult-use cannabis begin on July 1, 2024. Supporters of the provision argue that illicit operators could capture the market while regulations for licensed cannabis businesses are drafted.
Virginia public media outlet VPM is reporting that sources familiar with the governor’s discussions with lawmakers say he is expected to ask that the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana be legalized beginning on July 1 of this year. Northam also indicated in an interview on Wednesday that he would amend the bill.
“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 the month to return the bill with amendments to the legislature. Lawmakers are then expected to vote on any changes the governor makes on April 7.
Delay In Legalization Criticized
After lawmakers passed HB 2312, Sen. Adam Ebbin, the lead sponsor of the Senate’s version of the bill, commented on the compromise nature of the measure.
“It’s been a lot of work to get here, but I would say that we’re on the path to an equitable law allowing responsible adults to use cannabis,” Ebbin said.
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring said that while she does not believe that the measure is perfect, the legislation is a “justice bill” that would address the racial inequities in the enforcement of Virginia’s drug laws.
But other Democrats, including Sen. Jennifer McClellan, said that the legalization of marijuana possession should go into effect long before 2024. They are hoping that Northam, who has been a vocal supporter of cannabis policy reform, will amend the date before returning the bill to lawmakers.
“If we have already made the decision that simple possession should be repealed, we could have done that today and ended the disproportionate fines on communities of color,” McClellan said.
“Let’s be absolutely clear — this bill is not legalization, and there are a lot of steps between here and legalization,” she added.
Last year, Virginia decriminalized cannabis possession, making the offense a civil violation punishable by a fine of not more than $25. But critics say that the racial disparity in enforcement still exists. Chelsea Higgs Wise, the head of the advocacy group Marijuana Justice, said the 2024 legalization date felt “like a slap in the face of racial justice.”