When Virginia legislators voted to legalize recreational adult cannabis use in February, one of the most debated aspects of the bill was its three-year delay of legalization. This postponement ties the end of prohibition to the launch of the legal market in 2024. Some advocates and representatives have pointed out that this strategy will perpetuate the War on Drugs’ disparate effects on Black and Brown communities. Governor Ralph Northam is now reportedly considering moving up the legalization date.
While an earlier Senate version of the bill supported a July 1, 2021, start date for legalization, the House rejected this approach. Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini told Outlaw Report NORML continues to support a July 1 plan for legalizing both possession and personal cultivation. “The reduction of penalties need not be tied to the date when businesses can profit from sales,” they said.
The current bill with its 2024 timeline was officially sent to Northam on March 15, and he has until the 31 to sign, veto or amend. In the meantime, Northam’s advisers are holding meetings with lawmakers and their staffs to consider changes to the plan. The Governor’s Chief of Staff Clark Mercer told The Washington Post that the administration is discussing a shift in the possession legalization date with both chambers of the General Assembly.
On March 10, the VA ACLU, Marijuana Justice, RISE for Youth, and other groups sent Northam a letter suggesting amendments to the legalization proposal. In short, they ask the Governor to move the legalization date to July 1 and remove the portions of the legislation that criminalize youth. This is a pared-down version of these advocates’ February letter, which contained several other racial justice-oriented requests, some of which were met in the current bill.
One of the main arguments for legalizing cannabis sooner is that Virginia’s decriminalization efforts did not solve the racial disparities of the War on Drugs—a goal Northam and other Democrats have upheld as central to their drug reform efforts. In February, Marijuana Justice analyzed data from the Supreme Court of Virginia and found Black Virginians made up 52% of all possession charges since decriminalization was implemented in July 2020, even though they only account for 20% of the Virginia population. These kinds of racial inequities exist throughout the Commonwealth and the U.S.
Majority Leader Charniele Herring of Alexandria, who was the chief patron of the House bill, and other representatives have expressed worry that allowing recreational pot use before a legal retail system is in place might drive more business to the current underground cannabis market. Pedini of NORML pointed out that other states have addressed this concern by expediting sales through their existing operators. They said Virginia can do this, as well, by taking advantage of its current medical operators.
Sen. Adam Ebbin of Alexandria, who co-sponsored the Senate bill, told The Washington Post that the administration is considering moving up the legalization of personal home cultivation, as well, and that this move could also serve as a balance to potential growth in the unregulated market over the next few years.
A number of Democratic representatives have spoken out against the current bill’s postponement of legalization. “As Chief co-patrons and advocates for legalization of marijuana, I am encouraging my colleagues to join me in asking the Governor to #LegalizeMarijuana on July 1, 2021. Kicking the can down the road has the effect of continued over-policing people of color,” Sen. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth tweeted on the seventh.
On March 12, several delegates joined VA ACLU, Marijuana Justice and RISE for Youth in a, “Nudge for Northam: Legalize Marijuana Right,” Zoom panel.
“We do have the opportunity to lobby the Governor and express what changes need to be made,” Delegate Jeff Bourne of Richmond said during the event. “The thing that we can take [time] with is setting up the regulatory structure.”
But, Bourne says, “[Legalizing] simple possession July 1,” can’t wait, because with decriminalization, “the stats haven’t changed. Black and Brown people are still way over-policed on this issue.”
Lawmakers will respond to Northam’s decision to sign, amend or veto the bill during the Assembly’s reconvened session April 7.
Illustration by Kathy Wyche