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Virginia Lawmakers Sign Off On Bill Legalizing Recreational Marijuana

Virginia lawmakers have approved legislation legalizing recreational use of marijuana and commercial sales starting in 2024.
Richard Vogel
Virginia lawmakers have approved legislation legalizing recreational use of marijuana and commercial sales starting in 2024.

Lawmakers in Virginia have reached a deal to make the state the 16th in the nation and the first in the south to legalize recreational marijuana use. But the compromise bill is receiving blow back from some legalization advocates who say it falls short of racial justice aims.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate passed the bill in a Saturday legislative session in a party line vote of 48 to 43 in the House and 20 to 19 in the Senate. The legislation would legalize the use of cannabis by people over the age of 21 starting in 2024, when retail markets would be established. The law would also allow possession of up to an ounce by anyone over 21 and establishes a state agency to oversee regulation of the cannabis market.

Specifics of the regulations were punted until next year, when they'll be decided by the legislature.

The bill calls for 30% of marijuana tax revenue to go to a fund aimed at communities historically over-policed for marijuana-related crimes. Under the legislation, people under the age of 21 would face a $25 civil penalty and have to undergo treatment.

Marijuana legalization had been a priority for Democrats in the state, who have cited disparities in how people of color are penalized for possession and use. Lawmakers had already decriminalized possession of smaller amounts last year.

Gov. Ralph Northam — who announced his intentions to legalize marijuana use late last year — is expected to sign the measure into law.

"Virginia just took a major step towards legalizing marijuana in our commonwealth," Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

But the compromise legislation has drawn criticism from some Democratic lawmakers and advocates, who have taken issue with key provisions of the bill, including how the specifics of new commercial and criminal justice regulations will be decided next year, when Democrats may no longer control both chambers of the state legislature, The Washington Post notes.

"By legalizing without all the guardrails in place, I feel the message can be misconstrued ... that we have dropped the ball on the justice pieces," said Del. Marcia Price (D-Newport News), according to the Post. "Even the thought of business before justice is hard to stomach."

Another key point of contention had been the timeline for legalizing possession. Democrats in the Senate had pushed for legalizing possession of small amounts by the summer, the Associated Press reports. House Democrats argued that doing so without regulations in place could prop up black market sales.

The Times-Dispatch reports that differences between House and Senate proposals kept the bill in tense negotiations until Saturday, the last working day of the legislative session.

The provision to legalize small amounts ahead of 2024 did not end up in the final bill.

"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," said Democratic Sen. Jennifer McClellan, according to the AP.

A number of advocates for legalization have also criticized the bill, saying it would lead to new categories of crime that would fall disproportionately on communities of color.

"Lawmakers paid lip service to the communities that have suffered decades of harm caused by the racist War on Drugs with legislation that falls short of equitable reform and delays justice, " the ACLU of Virginia tweeted.

Earlier, the ACLU, which signed onto a letter demanding immediate legalization, said the bill "is worse than the status quo"and urged lawmakers to vote no. Other critics said the bill focuses too much on creating a commercial market and not decreasing racial disparities in punishments or arrests.

"Marijuana Justice is deeply disturbed that racial justice did not prevail as a priority today. Instead Virginia legislators only voted to create the infrastructure for profit, not equity in 'legalization,'" said the advocacy group, Marijuana Justice in a statement.

Republican lawmakers, who opposed the bill, criticized the legislation as being rushed.

"It is almost beyond my belief that as a result of internal pressures we're going to pass this piece of legislation that is not remotely ready for prime time ," said Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, according to the Times-Dispatch.

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