Northam Proposes Fast-Tracking Virginia Marijuana Legalization To July 1 The General Assembly voted to legalize marijuana, but it wouldn't go into effect until 2024. Northam doesn't want to wait.
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Northam Proposes Fast-Tracking Virginia Marijuana Legalization To July 1

Gov. Ralph Northam wants to move the date for marijuana legalization to July 1, 2021, three years earlier than expected. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is asking state lawmakers to accelerate marijuana legalization by nearly three years.

On Wednesday, Northam proposed legalizing simple possession of up to one ounce of marijuana by July 1, 2021, instead of waiting until July 1, 2024 — the date the measure is currently slated to go into effect.

"Our Commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way," Northam said in a press release Wednesday. "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. 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."

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The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation legalizing simple possession and sale of marijuana in late February. (Both the House and Senate had approved separate versions of the bills earlier that month, and voted on a compromised version weeks later.) The bill ends criminal penalties for simple possession of marijuana, and expunges certain cannabis-related offenses from criminal records by July 1, 2026. It also creates the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority to regulate the cultivation, production, and sale of weed in the commonwealth.

But all of that won't go into effect until 2024.

Now, Northam's amendments to the lawmakers' bill would fast-track that legalization this summer, and add a slew of changes aimed at "repairing past harm" to Black communities by drug policing.

In addition to the moved-up date of legalization, Northam wants to allow criminal record expungement of marijuana-related offenses to begin as "soon as state agencies are able to do so," and simplify the criteria for sealing criminal records, instead of waiting until 2026, as outlined in the General Assembly's bill. He also introduced new protections for workers in the cannabis industry, adding an amendment that would authorize the Cannabis Control Authority to revoke a business license if a company interferes with union efforts, fails to pay a prevailing wage, or if more than 10% of the employees are independent contractors.

The new amendments include additional budget changes to the bill, requesting funding for public health messaging around marijuana, and a provision that would allow a household to grow up to four marijuana plants starting July 1.

"I'm pleased with the improvements the Governor has proposed," Delegate Lamont Bagby, Chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, writes in the governors' press release Wednesday. "We are doing everything possible to repair and redress the harm done to communities of color most impacted by marijuana criminalization—the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus stands in support of the Governor's amendments because justice must not be delayed."

According to a major November 2020 report, which was ordered by law to review the commonwealth's marijuana legalization push, Black Virginians are more than three times as likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than their white counterparts — with especially high rates of arrest in Arlington, where Black Virginians are eight times as likely to be arrested for marijuana charges than white residents.

Since lawmakers voted to decriminalize possession of marijuana in January 2020 —making it punishable by a $25 civil fine — those rates have not changed, according to Northam's press release, and motivated his push to accelerate legalization.

The amendments come one week after Virginia made history by becoming the first southern state to abolish the death penalty, and an ongoing shift towards progressive policy measures aimed at criminal justice reform from the commonwealth's lawmakers.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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