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In 2024, Virginia lawmakers will vote to legalize marijuana.

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In 2024, Virginia lawmakers will vote to legalize marijuana.

 

Virginia lawmakers gave final approval to a bill on Saturday that would legalize marijuana for adult recreational use, but not until 2024, when retail sales would begin.

Virginia became the first Southern state to vote to legalize marijuana, joining 15 other states and the District of Columbia, after a compromise bill passed the House and Senate. The bill will now be submitted to Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, who is in favor of legalization.

Democrats made legalization a top priority, claiming that it was important to end the unequal treatment of people of color under existing drug laws. However, discussions between House and Senate Democrats have been contentious in recent days, and a compromise version of the huge bill was not made public until late Saturday afternoon.

Sen. Adam Ebbin, the Senate bill’s chief sponsor, said, “It’s been a lot of effort to get here, but I would say we’re on the road to an equal law enabling responsible adults to use cannabis.”

Several Democrats expressed hope that Northam will amend the bill and send it back to them with changes, such as a quicker legalization deadline.

“We could have done it today and stopped the unfair fines on communities of color if we had already agreed that simple possession should be repealed,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan.

“Let me be clear: this bill does not legalize marijuana, and there are several steps between here and legalization,” she said.

Alena Yarmosky, Northam’s spokesperson, said the governor “looks forward to continuing to strengthen this law.”

“There is still more more to be done, but this bill will assist in reinvesting in our neighborhoods and reducing inequities in our criminal justice system,” she said.

Possession of up to an ounce (28.3 grams) of marijuana will be legal starting Jan. 1, 2024, when sales will begin and laws to regulate the marijuana industry in Virginia will take effect.

The bill would contain a reenactment provision, which would entail a second vote from the General Assembly next year, but only on the legal system and criminal penalties for certain crimes, including underage possession and public use of marijuana, as Senate Democrats insisted on. Legalization would not require a second vote.

The Senate decided to legalize simple possession of marijuana this year to end penalties for people with small quantities of the drug, but House Democrats argued that legalization without a legal market for marijuana would allow the black market to expand.

Last year, lawmakers decriminalized marijuana, rendering mere possession a civil offense punishable by a fine of up to $25.

Although the law isn’t perfect, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring called it a “justice bill.”

“This pushes us in the right direction to remove and resolve certain structural obstacles, as well as over-policing, over-arrests, and over-convictions of African Americans who do not use marijuana at a higher rate than our white counterparts, but who seem to bear the brunt of criminal convictions,” Herring said.

According to a new report by the legislature’s research and oversight service, the overall arrest rate of Black people for marijuana possession was 3.5 times higher than that of white people from 2010 to 2019. In addition, Black people were imprisoned at a rate 3.9 times higher than white people, according to the report.

After program expenses, the bill recommends allocating 30% of marijuana tax revenue to a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund. The funds will go into scholarships, workforce development and job placement programs, and low- or no-interest loans for eligible cannabis companies in areas that have traditionally been over-policed for marijuana crimes.

Virginians who have been convicted of drug-related crimes, have family members who have been convicted, or reside in economically deprived areas may be eligible to apply for social equity licenses to join the marijuana industry as cultivators, wholesalers, producers, or retailers.

The bulk of marijuana tax revenue will be used to fund pre-kindergarten for at-risk children.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and other social justice advocacy organizations slammed the bill.

“The Virginia General Assembly declined to approve drug legalization for social justice today. The ACLU said in a tweet that legislators “paid lip service to the communities that have experienced decades of damage as a result of the racist War on Drugs” by passing legislation that “falls short of fair reform and delays justice.”

Opponents of marijuana legalization have expressed fear that it would lead to a rise in drug-impaired driving incidents and youth marijuana use.

Republican lawmakers spoke out against the bill on Saturday night, arguing that such a significant problem warranted a slower pace.

Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment said, “I’d guess there aren’t more than two or three members of this body who have an idea about the comprehensiveness of what this bill does.”

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