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Virginia Legislature Votes to Legalize Marijuana, But Not Everybody is Happy [FEATURE]

Last Saturday, the Virginia House and Senate approved a pair of bills to legalize marijuana -- but not for three years and with significant portions of the package required to be approved again next year, which could prove difficult if Democrats lose control of the legislature. The bills now go to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, who has previously voiced support for marijuana legalization, but some unhappy advocates are calling on him to amend them to address what they see as serious failings.

Virginia House chamber
The bills, SB 1406 HB 2312 would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and tax and regulate legal marijuana commerce beginning on July 1, 2024. They also allow for the home cultivation of up to four plants, two mature and two immature. And they mandate the shielding of records for past marijuana convictions from employers, landlords, insurance companies, and educational institutions.

But according to a bill summary from the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the bills also create new criminal offenses for public consumption ($25 fine), minor in possession ($25 fine and substance abuse education program), possession on school grounds (up to six months in jail), consumption in a moving motor vehicle (fine-only misdemeanor), and importing marijuana into the state (up to a year in jail). In addition, while possession of more than an ounce but less than a pound would be a $25 fine, possession of more than a pound can earn up to 10 years in prison.

The bills attempts to redress racial inequities and discrimination by providing licenses preferences and fee waivers to "social equity applicants," which MPP describes as "having 66% or more owners who: have a prior cannabis conviction, have a close relative with a cannabis conviction, live either in an area with disproportionate cannabis arrests or that is economically distressed, or graduated from a Virginia HBCU." The bills also create a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund to help people and communities disparately harmed by pot prohibition and Cannabis Business Equity and Diversity Support Team to encourage minority involvement and develop criteria for plans to emphasize diversity, equity, and inclusion.

"It was a lot of work to get there, but we're on the path to an equitable law allowing for responsible adults to not be penalized for using cannabis," cosponsor Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said after the vote.

"Virginia legislators are proving that it is possible to work swiftly to pass legislation that would not only legalize cannabis, but also address the disproportionate harm caused by decades of prohibition," MPP executive director Steve Hawkins," said in a press release lauding the vote. "Virginia is on the brink of becoming the 16th state to end cannabis prohibition and replace it with sensible legalization and regulation for adults 21 and over. MPP is proud to have played an important role in all three states where legislatures have voted to legalize cannabis -- Vermont, Illinois, and now, Virginia."

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) also pronounced itself pleased.

"The advancement of this legislation is another historic step for cannabis justice in Virginia," NORML Development Director and Virginia NORML executive director Michelle Pedini said in a statement greeting the vote. "Stakeholders, the administration, and the legislature have dedicated hundreds of hours to craft legislation that is just and equitable, and that will replace the failed policy of cannabis prohibition with one that promotes Virginia’s economy as well as Virginians' public health and safety."

But the marijuana consumers' group also signaled that it didn't consider the legislation perfect.

"This effort remains a work in progress and our efforts in Virginia are far from over," Pedini noted. "NORML is dedicated to continuing our work with lawmakers and regulators to advance legislative reforms that are most closely aligned with the views of the majority of Virginians who desire a safe, legal cannabis market. 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."

But some Democratic legislators were less than satisfied.

"The final bill, as we saw it, did not have really have the criminal justice reforms as quickly as we would like them to be," said Delegate Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke). "We also want to make sure we do everything we can from a safety perspective, from an educational perspective."

"Let us be clear, this bill is not legalization and there are a lot of steps between here and legalization," said Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) during Saturday's floor debate. "It's not worse than the status quo. Could it be better, yes."

Some other interested parties, though, including the ACLU of Virginia, Justice Forward Virginia, Marijuana Justice, and RISE for Youth, were not so sure the final package was an improvement. The activist groups had laid out their position -- end marijuana prohibition now, don't criminalize youth, strong expungement, racial justice -- in a February 9 open letter to the administration and legislators, and they unhappily reiterated their commitment to that position after the vote.

In a statement the same day, the ACLU of Virginia blasted the final result as "worse than the status quo" in terms of racial justice. "The bill creates new crimes that include permitting searches for having marijuana in a vehicle and possession under the age of 21," the group charged. "The bill also adds new pretexts like 'transportation' and offering or consuming marijuana in a public place, all of which will be enforced disproportionately against Black Virginians."

The ACLU of Virginia called the legislation little more than "an aspirational policy statement" given that many aspects of it will have to be voted on again next. Its bottom line was blunt: "This bill does not advance the cause of equal justice or racial justice in Virginia. It is the product of a closed-door legislative process that has prioritized the interests of recreational marijuana smokers over people and communities of color. The bill is a failure."

It's now up to Gov. Northam to sign or veto the legislation, or amend it and send it back to the legislature for changes to be considered. Virginia has legalized marijuana, but that battle over what that really means is still underay and undoubtedly just beginning.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Nice gift to the black market

3 more years of exclusive control over recreational cannabis distribution in VA. And 3 more years of wildly hypocritical sliming of cannabis users in VA. Just treat us like goddamn alcohol users get treated,  that would still be more than fair to users of that killer drug, which is so much more dangerous than weed that there is utterly no comparison. Enough of the dirtbag bigotry already!

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