Virginia passed legislation to legalize the recreational use of cannabis for adults as part of the November 2020 general election. That law, HB2312 and SB1406, was cleared in the general assembly in February of 2021. As part of that legislation, the state would take several years to erect the infrastructure and oversight necessary to support the cannabis new market. The law proposed a fully open and legal market by 2024. This week, Governor Ralph Northam held a news conference to announce his goal to accelerate things in the name of public safety, public health, and social justice.
At the news conference in Richmond, Virginia, Gov. Northam began his address, “Our Commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way.” Gov. Northam would of on to outline dates relevant to the change and other amendments he is pursuing. He went on to assert, “Virginia will become the 15th state to legalize marijuana — and these changes will ensure we do it with a focus on public safety, public health, and social justice.”
The Governor’s interest in expediting the law comes in the wake of what many in the Virginia government have called a marijuana bill that no one liked. The chief most complaint of which came from democrats belying the continued racial inequalities surrounding cannabis drug enforcement practices. For many, the wait for 2024 to right those wrongs was far too long.
With that point of contention in mind, Gov. Northam had been rumored to be mulling changes to the law over the past few weeks. Today, those anxious legislators had their questions answered. Governor Northam seeks to push the legality of marijuana possession and cultivation by July 2021, nearly 3 years earlier than anticipated.
Jenn Michelle Pedini, Development Director of NORML and Executive Director of Virginia NORML, came out in support of the Governor’s decision to amend the bill and push for an accelerated timeframe for legalization. In a statement released by NORML, she said, The Governor’s amendments are another step towards ending the targeting of minority communities over marijuana-related offenses and enacting a framework for the legal sale and use of cannabis. I’m grateful to Governor Northam, my colleagues, and all the advocates who worked so hard on this important legislation. NORML worked closely with the patrons and the Attorney General to provide substantial amendment language to Governor Northam.”
Pedini’s comments were not all so positive. She added, “While a number of important improvements were made, we’re disappointed that Virginia is not following the common-sense pathways previously established by other states that have successfully expanded from medical-use to adult-use. In the interest of public and consumer safety, Virginians 21 and older should be able to purchase retail cannabis products at the already operational dispensaries in 2021, not in 2024. Such a delay will only exacerbate the divide for equity applicants and embolden illicit activity. NORML remains dedicated to continuing to our work with lawmakers and regulators to advance legislative reforms that are most closely aligned with the views of the majority of Virginians who desire a safe, legal cannabis market.” NORML is a member of the coalition of advocacy groups closely watching the developments of legalized cannabis in Virginia and elsewhere across the country.
Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn was also congratulatory following the Governor’s announced amendments, offering, “The Governor’s amendments are another step towards ending the targeting of minority
communities over marijuana-related offenses and enacting a framework for the legal sale and use of cannabis. I’m grateful to Governor Northam, my colleagues, and all the advocates who worked so hard on this important legislation.”
While the Governor’s ambitions of accelerating legalization have left some naysayers uneasy, the proposed amendments maintain safety measures already in place. These include prohibiting smoking while driving, smoking while driving a school bus, and possession of marijuana on school property.
Marijuana Justice, Justice Forward Virginia, RISE for Youth and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, and other advocacy groups have formed a coalition around the equity of legalized marijuana in the state. Upon hearing the governor’s announcement, representatives of the coalition hailed the advancement of the legislation as “the first step toward ending racist marijuana law enforcement.”
As part of the new law, 30% of after-program-cost cannabis tax revenues are earmarked for a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund. The fund will go toward helping communities recover from historically skewed policing practices that saw cannabis-related arrest rates for Black Virginians 3.5 times higher and convictions 3.9 times higher than White Virginians. The funds will be put towards scholarships, workforce development and job placement services, and low- or no-interest loans for qualified cannabis businesses.
The coalition released an official statement, with heavy criticism of the state’s history of drug law enforcement, “This important change to the legislation recently passed by the General Assembly will allow the Commonwealth to begin addressing the tragic consequences of communities of color being over-policed in the failed War on Drugs. Marijuana laws are more harshly enforced in Black and Brown communities, and we cannot risk more people being caught in the system for acting in ways that will soon be legal.”
A statement from the Governor’s office confirmed that the decision to push forward the legalization date followed a state study revealing the disproportionate policing and conviction rate of Black Virginians concerning cannabis use. The upward trend was reinforced by data from state courts, even after the decriminalization of cannabis possession was passed last year.
“I am grateful to the advocates and legislators for their dedicated work on this important issue, and I look forward to this legislation passing next month,” Northam said in the news conference. However, there are those legislators who voted no on the bill altogether. Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen is one such lawmaker. Sen. Peterson voted against the bill and remains skeptical of legalization altogether. This despite numerous claims and state studies affirming unfair law enforcement practices surrounding cannabis use and possession.
On his apprehensions, Sen. Petersen explained, “I don’t have a problem with decriminalization or even legalizing marijuana in small amounts for adult use, but I’m not a fan of setting up a marijuana industry in this state, which appears to be the purpose of the legislation.”
Legalization does seem to be in the cards for Virginia. However, the framework for a retail cannabis market is years off and will likely not come into place before the prescribed 2024 timeline.
The bill itself is massive, at over 250 pages, outlining everything from oversight, to enforcement, to overturning convictions and expunging cannabis conviction records.
Statewide polling data reveals nearly 70% of registered voters in Virginia support the legalization of cannabis for adults. This includes majorities of both democrats and republicans.
Overall, the passage of HB2312 and SB1406 is a historic moment in itself as Virginia will be the first former Confederate state to legalize recreational marijuana.