Governor Ralph Northam signed marijuana legalization into law in a ceremony Wednesday afternoon, joined by legislators and marijuana advocates. The new law is a major piece of legislation from the 2021 General Assembly session. The law has many components involving regulation of cannabis production and retail that don’t take effect immediately, but a key portion allowing simple possession of up to one ounce of marijuana takes effect July 1.
“As of July first, 2021, who’s counting but 71 days from now, Virginia will no longer police adults for possessing small amounts of marijuana,” Northam said in the ceremony. “What this really means is that 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 county have been disproportionately enforced against communities of color and low-income Virginians.”
“We are here today to celebrate a milestone for Virginia. We are the first state in the South to move forward with legalizing marijuana,” Northam said.
As the bills passed through the legislature, some Republicans opposed legalization outright. Others suggested potential support for a libertarian-style legalization of marijuana. But in the end, Republicans opposed the final form of the bills. Some expressed concern over provisions prioritizing access to business licenses for those who have prior marijuana convictions. Republicans also worried about the major regulatory structure created by the new legislation.
No Republicans voted for passage of the finalized legislation, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project. Additionally, Democratic Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) voted against legalization in the Senate, leading to a 20-20 tie, which Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax broke by voting for legalization.
“This is yet another example of Democrats, yes, Democrats listening to Virginians, and taking action on the will of the people,” Northam said. “From expanding healthcare to over 500,000 people to common-sense gun legislation, criminal justice, and police reform, ending the death penalty, fair 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 issues, Democrats have delivered and on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia, I say thanks to all of you,” he said.
NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini spoke in the ceremony. “Over the past two months I have answered more times than I can count, ‘How did Virginia just legalize cannabis? Who knew that was going to happen?’ Me, I knew, and so did these people,” Pedini said, gesturing to the lawmakers in the ceremony. “And as to the how, that speaks to the unwavering commitment of these fine people before you today.”
“Governor Northam made it very clear from the onset of development from this bill that it should begin and end with equity,” Northam’s 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.”
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