On March 31, in a win for Virginia drug-reform, Governor Ralph Northam proposed an amendment to legalize adult cannabis possession July 1, 2021, instead of 2024. This shift in the timeline was a central goal for the activists and legislators who aim to help Virginia address the racial disparities of its War on Drugs. While some say their work is far from done, many still upheld the proposed summer ending for cannabis prohibition as a significant win. Northam also put forward several other amendments to this legislation and signed multiple other cannabis bills in March. It seems spring is a big season for cannabis in Virginia, and it looks like summer will be even bigger.
“This is a win for advocates!” Marijuana Justice tweeted Wednesday. But it cautions that young people, especially Black and Brown youth, “will continue to be disproportionately given cuffs rather than care.” This group and its advocacy partners previously spoke out about provisions in the legalization proposal that labelled minors with cannabis as delinquents instead of children in need of services. In a statement on Mar. 31, the nonprofit also said it had not yet reviewed the full amendments from the Governor, which had not been released publicly at the time.
“We’re pleased Governor Northam agrees with NORML that the legalization of personal possession and personal cultivation ought to happen as soon as possible,” NORML Development Director and Executive Director of Virginia NORML Jenn Michelle Pedini said in a statement.
They recently told The Outlaw Report, “The reduction of penalties need not be tied to the date when businesses can profit from sales.”
The previous version of the legalization plan, which passed both Chambers of the General Assembly in February, scheduled the end of prohibition for 2024, when Virginia’s commercial market is scheduled to launch. Advocates and some representatives pointed out that this delay would perpetuate disproportionate cannabis policing of Black and Brown communities, and that arrest data have shown Virginia’s existing decriminalization efforts have not solved these racial inequities. According to a press release from the Governor’s office on the amendments, “[This] fact drove his proposal to advance legalization by three years, [and] he remains committed to working with legislators and advocates to repair past harm.”
While an earlier Senate version of the bill supported the July 1, 2021, start date for adult possession legalization, the House had rejected this approach. But March 26, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said she will now support the summer start date.
“I’m glad to see the House appears to be coming around to our position on the July 1 date. That gives me even more confidence that that’s what’s going to happen,” Democratic Senator Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, who is running for governor, said.
Northam’s legalization amendments allow home cultivation on July 1, with some stipulations. The amendments also specify funding for public health campaign on cannabis risks, and training for law enforcement on “drugged driving;” prevent cannabis businesses from interfering with union organizing, and provide other employee protections; and “allow” for expedited cannabis record expungement and sealing, “as soon as state agencies are able to do so.”
The General Assembly approved expungement plans in February that have “staggered, delayed effective dates,” with some as late as 2025. Northam’s amendmentopens the door for some earlier movement on these reforms. But the Governor notes that this process involves complex updates to computer systems and processes. Legislators will have a chance to formally respond to all of the legalization amendments when they reconvene Wednesday, April 7.
Also in late March, Northam signed a significant bill protecting employees who are registered medical cannabis patients. HB 1862 prevents employers from firing, disciplining or discriminating against employees for lawfully using medical cannabis when they are not at work. Employers can still restrict employees from being under the influence of cannabis or having it while on the job. And, some exceptions to the employee protections are made for federal contractors and the defense sector of Virginia.
The Governor also recently signed a bill into law that allows medical flower or botanical cannabis to be sold in Virginia, as well as one that preserves the telemedicine advancements the industry has undergone during the pandemic and maintains medical cannabis access for people in hospice, nursing and assisted living facilities.