Virginia legislators took a key step toward legalizing recreational cannabis use for adults statewide.
Weeks after both houses of the Virginia General Assembly approved separate bills to legalize the simple possession and sale of marijuana, reconciliation of the two chambers' bills came down to the wire on Saturday, at the end of the legislature's session.
The Virginia House approved the compromise version 48-43 and the Senate voted for it 20-19.
Not a single Republican voted for the bill in either chamber.
Negotiators from the Virginia House and Senate were still working Friday night to iron out disagreements over a potential state voter referendum on the issue and timing of legalization, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.
The bill creates the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority, which would regulate cultivation, production and sale of weed. It ends criminal penalties for simple possession of marijuana. It also automatically expunges certain cannabis-related offenses from people's records by July 1, 2026, and it preferences people and communities who have been previously impacted by marijuana enforcement for licensing of marijuana businesses.
The legalization bill won't go into effect until 2024.
And the job of structuring the commonwealth's new cannabis market isn't over quite yet. Under the bill, the legislature will be required to return to the issue next year to sort out details around business licensing for marijuana sales and punishments for new marijuana-related crimes.
If the General Assembly can't come to an agreement on those details in 2022, simple possession of marijuana will become legal in 2024, but sales of the drug wouldn't.
Some criminal justice reform groups weren't pleased with the final result, claiming it would prove damaging to racial equity in the Virginia justice system.
"The Virginia General Assembly agreed on a marijuana legalization compromise that, from the perspective of racial justice, is worse than the status quo," reads a joint statement from the ACLU Virginia, criminal justice reform group Justice Forward Virginia, and juvenile justice organization RISE for Youth.
Specifically, the groups are concerned that the bill allows for law enforcement searches for having marijuana in a vehicle and for possessing marijuana under the age of 21. It also prevents consumption of marijuana in public places and significantly restricts the quantity of the drug adults can have on their person in public places.
The statement says these strictures "will be enforced disproportionately against Black Virginians."
Original story, 02/05:
Lawmakers in both chambers of Virginia's General Assembly approved legislation Friday that clears the way for legal cannabis sales in the state. The move sets up Virginia to be the first southern state to establish a recreational marijuana marketplace, and potentially the first to do so in the Washington region.
Senators approved their chamber's version of a legalization bill 23-15 after nearly an hour of floor debate. The House bill sponsored by Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) passed 55 to 42 with heavy Democratic support and two abstentions. Republicans expressed reservations about the bill in the final minutes before both votes.
Del. Nicholas Freitas (R-Culpeper) said the House bill allows too much government control over cannabis sales that will interfere with competition and reward cannabis industry players with political connections. Del. Jay Leftwich (D-Chesapeake) said legalizing marijuana could lead to more crime in addition to adolescent use of the substance, potentially contributing to more hospitalizations. (The bill does not allow minors to legally purchase cannabis.)
Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth) countered that concerns about health and crime impacts are overblown.
"You would think we were getting ready to go back and ban cigarettes and tobacco use, because it causes about 40,000 deaths per year," Scott said, adding that legalizing marijuana could vastly undercut the illegal marijuana trade.
Virginia could take in between $31 and $62 million in tax revenue during the program's first year of sales, a legislative analysis shows. That figure could swell to as much as $308 million during the program's fifth year.
Details have yet to be finalized on specifics of the marijuana program, but both versions of the legislation — which must be combined and agreed upon before they move to the governor's desk — put the start of retail sales in 2024.
D.C. officials have expressed their own interest in legalizing marijuana sales, but have been held up by Congress. In Maryland, a bill was introduced this week in Annapolis to create a legal marijuana marketplace.
This story was updated to reflect the final vote and issues surrounding the vote.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.