On Feb. 27, in the waning hours of a busy session, the Virginia General Assembly approved legislation to legalize adult recreational cannabis use. After working to resolve differences between two complex bills from Democrats, the legislature accepted a compromise that will allow recreational pot possession when the commercial market launches in 2024. Some advocates criticize this delay in legalization, pointing out that it will continue the War on Drugs’ disparate effects on Black and Brown communities for three more years.
Most of the 264-page plan including portions dealing with equity, sales and crimes, is slated for a review and second vote in 2022. The vast majority of Republicans voted against this legislation.
While several social justice provisions made it into the latest version of the proposal, the nonprofit Marijuana Justice is “deeply disturbed” by the bill.
“By not repealing simple possession until 2024, legislators are risking the futures of an estimated 36,000 Virginians that we can count on being disproportionately Black,” Marijuana Justice stated in a press release.
Marijuana Justice references recent data that shows Virginia’s decriminalization of weed did not curb the racial inequities of cannabis policing. Some representatives felt similarly.
“If we have already made the decision that simple possession should be repealed, we could have done that today and ended the disproportionate fines on communities of color. Let’s be absolutely clear — this bill is not legalization, and there are a lot of steps between here and legalization,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, a Democratic candidate for Governor, said.
VA NORML took a more celebratory approach to the vote, while recognizing the need for continued work and affirming a goal to bring the legalization start date forward. Executive Director of VA NORML Jenn Michelle Pedini said the move 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… 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.”
Some of the social and racial justice demands that were raised by Marijuana Justice, the Virginia ACLU and others during this session are represented in the current bill, to varying degrees. A social equity license category that would have allowed business owners to qualify by hiring people impacted by the War on Drugs, rather than being personally impacted themselves, has been removed.
Vertical integration will be limited to microbusinesses; Virginia’s medical cannabis companies, which will have to give $1 million each to the Cannabis Equity Business Loan Fund; and, partially, to industrial hemp processors.
“We believe we should limit vertical integration to only microbusinesses. Banning vertical integration will allow more Virginians the opportunity to compete in the market, rather than a few people with fully vertically integrated licenses to profit big,” a recent multigroup advocacy letter said.
Several other requests made by advocates were not fulfilled. While students will not be expelled for having cannabis on campus, and youth penalties are reduced to civil infractions, minors with cannabis are still labelled delinquents instead of children in need of services. Also, ACLU VA and others called for 70% of cannabis excise tax revenues to feed the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund. But the current legislation offers the following structure:
-40% to prekindergarten programs for at-risk 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds;
-30% to the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund;
-25% to substance use disorder prevention and treatment programs; and
-5% to public health programs.
In a pre-vote message against this proposal, Marijuana Justice warned against the multiple cannabis penalties in the bill, stating it creates “new crimes” relating to possession by those under 21 or in a vehicle, and “new pretexts” relating to cannabis transportation and use in public placesThis nonprofit asks Governor Ralph Northam to alter the legislation: “Marijuana Justice hopes that Governor Northam will amend the conference bill and enact the legalization of simple possession of marijuana with no new crimes by July 1, 2021.”
The Governor’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said Northam “looks forward to continuing to improve this legislation,” according to The Associated Press. “There’s still a lot of work ahead, but this bill will help to reinvest in our communities and reduce inequities in our criminal justice system.”
Virginia Mercury published a summary of the approved plan that was prepared by General Assembly staff. The full compromise bill is here.
Photo illustration by Kathy Wyche