Virginia is on the path to legalizing recreational marijuana under a regulated market by 2024, under contentious legislation that cleared the legislature Saturday night.
The measure would set up a new state agency to rule over the eventual legal marijuana market. But lawmakers punted to next year key decisions on the regulatory framework for the market and the new criminal penalties that would go into effect when marijuana is legalized.
Seven Democrats in the House and one in the Senate broke ranks with their party and did not support the measure. In the House, several lawmakers said a delay to legalize simple possession until there is a legal market in 2024 unjustly continues the disparate criminalization of Virginians of color.
Republicans broadly opposed the measure in both chambers, arguing that the eleventh-hour deal between House and Senate Democrats on a behemoth bill they didn’t fully understand was a disservice to Virginians.
The measure now heads to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, who has been adamant in talks with legislators that marijuana legalization is a top priority for his administration. On Saturday and through negotiations, Northam was personally involved in cementing a deal between the chambers.
The bill’s journey through the General Assembly was fraught up until its final passage, and it appears that further debate awaits. Key Democrats on Saturday said they anticipated Northam would issue amendments on the bill to address concerns.
“Virginia just took a major step towards legalizing marijuana in our commonwealth,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said. “Governor Northam is grateful to the General Assembly for their hard work, and looks forward to continuing to improve this legislation.”
Significant differences between the House and Senate over how to approach marijuana legalization led to weeks of tense negotiations that carried on until late Saturday, the legislature’s last working day of the session.
One key point of contention was a push to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana by this summer, which was not included in the final bill, despite strong advocacy by civil rights groups who deemed it a top priority.
They argued that mere decriminalization still disproportionately harms Virginians of color. Many of those groups — including the ACLU of Virginia and Marijuana Justice — urged lawmakers to reject the bill without the provision.
They cited state data showing that, of the 4,505 people cited for simple possession since the General Assembly decriminalized marijuana last summer, 52% were Black and 45% were white, while Black people make up 20% of the state’s population and white people 70%.
On the floor, Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, argued that many of her constituents will go to jail and will remain in jail while the state sets up a legal market without legalizing possession.
“Business before justice is hard to stomach,” she said. Price was one of seven Democrats in the House who did not cast votes on the bill; the others were: Dels. Lashrecse Aird of Petersburg; Jeff Bourne of Richmond; Lee Carter of Manassas — a candidate for governor; Sam Rasoul of Roanoke; Ibraheem Samirah of Fairfax and Don Scott of Portsmouth.
The bill cleared the House 48-43.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, a candidate for governor who led the push to legalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana this summer, said she hoped Northam would include such a provision in an amendment before signing the bill.
McClellan voted in favor of the bill, saying it was “not worse than the status quo.” The Senate approved the measure in a in a 20-19 vote. All Republicans opposed the bill, along with Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City.
“This bill is not marijuana legalization. It does set up framework to get us to a path for legalization in 2024,” McClellan said.
It’s unclear if Northam will support the proposed change. House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, acknowledged that people of color would continue to be disproportionately impacted by marijuana laws, but called the bill an “important step forward.”
“By aligning adult use legalization and sales, we ensure that full legalization coincides with the establishment of a legal market, and does not result in unintended consequences of endangering public health and safety by growing or enhancing an illicit market,” she said.
Hesitation over the bill among Senate lawmakers resulted in a reenactment clause on major portions of the bill — meaning that they will not go into effect unless the legislature approves them again next year.
That includes key language on how the new regulated market will be structured, and how the state will rework its criminal code to accommodate for marijuana legalization while putting up guardrails on possession of the drug.
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, D-Shenandoah, who opposed the bill, said leaving such matters unresolved while approving legalization by 2024 could harm Virginians.
In the Senate, Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said: “It is almost beyond my belief that as a result of internal pressures were going to pass this piece of legislation that is not remotely ready for prime time.”
Per the bill, once marijuana is legalized in January 2024, people would be allowed to possess up to an ounce. Anyone found with more than an ounce or less than a pound would face a $25 civil penalty. Possession of more than a pound would constitute a felony.
People would be allowed to share an ounce of marijuana or less with other people, as long as there is no exchange of money or goods.
People under the age of 21 would face a $25 civil penalty for possession of any marijuana, and undergo treatment and education.
Public use of marijuana would not be allowed. Driving with an open container of marijuana would result in a Class 4 misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $250. Law enforcement would not be able to search cars based on the odor of marijuana.
As for the legal market, House and Senate lawmakers agreed to curtail “vertical integration” — the ability for one company to hold licenses for every part of the market, seed to sale. There are two exceptions: The bill would allow medical marijuana processors to hold all five licenses with certain restrictions and a $1 million contribution to the Virginia Cannabis Equity Business Loan Fund.
Micro-businesses would also be allowed to vertically integrate. The new cannabis agency would determine how small those operations should be.
The legislation also includes the creation of a licensing program that would ensure people impacted by the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws. Under the tentative agreement, people with a conviction for a marijuana-related crime and graduates of Virginia historically Black colleges and universities could qualify for a social equity license, as long as they have lived in Virginia for 12 months.
The agreement leaves untouched what the Northam administration proposed on taxes and the use of new revenues.
Marijuana purchases would be taxed at 21% statewide. Within five years, the state expects to collect more than $230 million in new revenues.
After operational costs are taken out, 40% would fund preschool for disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds; 30% would go to an equity reinvestment fund to benefit communities impacted by substance abuse and marijuana incarceration; 25% would pay for addiction prevention and treatment programs; and 5% would broadly fund state public health programs.