Virginia Gov. Northam Signs Adult-Use Cannabis Legalization

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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam detoured his signing of adult-use cannabis legislation, but an amendment package decided by a tiebreaker cleared a path for the stroke of his pen on Wednesday.

The state’s legislative chambers overcame differences to pass a compromise bill on Feb. 27, after each body passed different measures—Senate Bill 1406 and House Bill 2312—to legalize cannabis possession, personal cultivation and retail sales for adults 21 years and older.

The problem? Those legalization efforts, including possession laws, would not have gone into full effect until Jan. 1, 2024. Following the legislature’s passage, Jenn Michelle Pedini, Virginia’s executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said that timeline wasn’t good enough and she hoped to continue working to accelerate specific facets of legalization. Northam agreed and pushed to expedite certain components of the legislature’s bill. 

On April 7, the General Assembly approved the Democratic governor’s amendment package by way of Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax casting the deciding vote in a split Senate. As a result, adults 21 years and older will be allowed to possess up to 1 ounce of cannabis and grow up to four plants per household starting July 1, 2021—speeding up the timeline 2 1/2 years.

“As of July 1, 2021—who’s counting, but 71 days from now—Virginia will no longer police adults for possessing small amounts of marijuana,” Northam said during his signing ceremony Wednesday. “What this really means is people will no longer be arrested or face penalties for simple possession that follow them and affect their lives. We know that marijuana laws in Virginia and throughout this country have been disproportionately enforced against communities of color and low-income Virginians.”

According to Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC)—the state’s non-partisan research arm—the average arrest rate of Black Virginians for marijuana possession was 3.5 times higher than the arrest rate for white individuals from 2010-2019, and their conviction rate was 3.9 times higher than white individuals.

The social equity implications of ending prohibition were mentioned by everyone who spoke during the governor’s signing ceremony, including Democratic Sens. Louise Lucas and Adam Ebbin, who were primary sponsors of S.B. 1406, Democratic Delegate Charniele Herring, who sponsored H.B. 2312, and Democratic House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn.

Representing the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) as the governor’s lead deputy chief diversity officer, Alaysia Black Hackett said, “This law establishes social equity as a pillar and major priority. Specifically, as mentioned before, it focuses on health equity, economic equity and equity in criminal justice. I want to especially highlight that it was critical for there to be equitable business licensing, especially for those who have been in the past criminalized and disenfranchised by marijuana laws.

“Secondly, the social equity reinvestment fund, an important structure in this legislation, provides resources that will elevate and uplift those persons, neighborhoods, communities and families most negatively impacted by the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws. This bill makes Virginia a national leader as we lean into many uncomfortable truths about the legalization of marijuana and the true meaning of being many Virginians but one commonwealth.”

Also included in Northam’s amendments, new language gives the state’s incoming Cannabis Control Authority the power to strip licenses from any cannabis business that doesn’t remain neutral while its workers attempt to unionize, a provision that drew partisanship on the opposite side of the aisle in the General Assembly.

But adult-use legalization in Virginia was partisan to begin with—neither the House bill nor the Senate bill attracted any Republicans sponsors or co-sponsors. That did not deter Democrats from their efforts. When Democrats flipped both chambers in 2019, they gained control of both the legislature and governor’s office for the first time in more than two decades.

“This is another example of Democrats, yes Democrats, listening to Virginians and taking action on the will of the people,” Northam said, “from expanding health care to over 500,000 people, to commonsense gun legislation, criminal justice and police reform, ending the death penalty in Virginia, fairer voting laws, moving forward clean energy, giving our teachers and state employees a much-deserved raise, and now legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in Virginia. On these and many other initiatives, Democrats have delivered.”

Statewide polling data released Feb. 2, 2021, by Christopher Newport University’s Watson Center for Civic Leadership showed that 68% of registered voters in Virginia, including majorities of Democrats and Republicans, support adult-use cannabis legalization. That mirrored the 68% of Americans who support legalization, according to a November 2020 Gallup poll.

According to JLARC, a fully legal cannabis industry in Virginia will create more than 11,000 jobs in sectors ranging from farming to retail. The Cannabis Control Authority, which the governor’s signed legislation aims to establish by July 2021, will oversee regulations and licensing. The five-member board of directors will institute the number of licensees, which cannot exceed 400 retailers, 25 wholesalers, 450 cultivators and 60 product manufacturers.

Many of the provisions in the roughly 300-page bill are subject to a reenactment, meaning a second review and vote by members of the General Assembly in 2022. But other provisions, such as simple possession and home grows, require no further action.

“Over the past two months, I have answered more times than I can count, ‘How did Virginia just legalize cannabis?’” said Pedini, who also serves as NORML’s development director. She gave credit to the Democratic leaders at the governor’s signing ceremony and to Virginians who supported the effort to become the first state in the South to legalize cannabis.

“Today and together, we celebrate an extraordinary victory for cannabis justice in the commonwealth,” she said. “I’ve also mentioned countless times how Virginia is the single most prepared state to ever undertake a legalization effort. The study and the workgroup both prioritized legalization that ensures equity, consumer safety and restorative justice. This is why the legislation succeeded, and on its first attempt.”

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