The Virginia General Assembly passed marijuana legalization bills on Saturday, a move that had been expected to make Virginia the first southern state to legalize marijuana. However, legislators from the House of Delegates and the Senate passed a compromise that delays legalization and retail sale of marijuana until 2024. The compromise, created in a conference committee, also requires another vote in 2022 to confirm parts of the bill.
While some legalization advocates said passage of the bill was progress, others criticized it. Some Republican legislators warned that the bills were too complex to be well understood, saying that the compromise seemed rushed.
“The advancement of this legislation is another historic step for cannabis justice in Virginia. This effort remains a work in progress and our efforts in Virginia are far from over,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, development director of marijuana advocacy organization NORML. “In particular, we hope to expedite the timeline with which Virginia adults will no longer face either criminal or civil penalties for the personal possession and cultivation of cannabis.”
Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) called it a “strong step” towards legalization in a tweet.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia called the compromise “worse than the status quo” in a Saturday press release: “The bill creates new crimes that include permitting searches for having marijuana in a vehicle and possession under the age of 21. The bill also adds new pretexts like “transportation” and offering or consuming marijuana in a public place, all of which will be enforced disproportionately against Black Virginians.”
The release adds, “Moreover, the bill is at most an aspirational policy statement; the legislation includes a reenactment clause, requiring virtually every aspect of the bill to be voted on again in 2022. The vote this year doesn’t matter.”
Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said on the Senate floor on Saturday, “This bill is not worse than status quo. Could it be better? Yes. If we have already made the decision that simple possession should be repealed, we could have done that today and ended the disproportionate fines on communities of color. But that’s not where we are today. Hopefully, in the 30 days the Governor has to look at this bill, he’ll consider doing that.”
She added, “But lets be absolutely clear: this bill is not legalization, and there are a lot of steps between here and legalization.”
Although the General Assembly decriminalized marijuana possession last year, the decriminalization legislation imposed a $25 civil penalty on Virginians 18 and older who possess up to one ounce of the drug. In addition to removing that penalty, legalization will also include the creation of regulations and licenses for potential businesses entering the new market.
Pedini, who is also the executive director of Virginia NORML, said the bills passed last week begin that process.
“The measure establishes an independent agency, the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority, to oversee the promulgation of regulations that will govern the adult-use market. That agency will convene this summer,” Pedini said. “The committee also established a January 1, 2024 enactment date for the law. Upon that date, but not before then, adults will be able to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and cultivate up to four cannabis plants per household without penalty. The remainder of the 300-page bill, which details the regulatory and market structure, social equity provisions, and repeals criminal penalties, is subject to a second review and vote by the Assembly next year.”
On Saturday, legislators worried about the two-part nature of the bill. Senator Richard Stuart (R-King George) said, “I think it’s important for people to understand that it will be illegal to grow marijuana in Virginia, it will be illegal for people to manufacture it, it will be illegal for people to possess it with the intent to sell it, it’ll be illegal to possess certain amounts. And it goes beyond that. Most of those will be a felony in Virginia, and many of those will be prosecuted.”
“The people of this body can’t even decipher what’s in it. How is the average Virginian supposed to know that they can’t grow it in their backyard, that they can’t possess a certain amount more, that if they possess a certain amount and they happen to have baggies in the kitchen next to their bag of pot, they could be arrested with the possession of the intent to sell,” Stuart asked.
He said, “You’re going to tell people it’s legal, when in fact, the vast majority will not be.”
Minority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City) said, “The objection I have to this bill is fairly simple. I would say there are not more than two or three members of this body that have a clue as to the comprehensiveness of what this bill does. To be looking at a substitute that is over 3,000 lines over 250 pages and come in here with these incredibly thin and transparent arguments trying to justify why we need to do this, it is almost bordering on being disingenuous.”
Norment said, “There are so many nuances, there are so many uncertainties, and so much lack of understanding on this that it is almost beyond my belief that as a result of internal pressures that we’re going to pass this piece of legislation that is not even remotely ready for prime time.”
“I’ve got to say this is one of the most horrendous pieces of legislation in my career that have been jammed through because hardly anybody gets it,” he said.
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