Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam detoured his signing of adult-use cannabis legislation, but an amendment package decided by a tiebreaker cleared a path for the stroke of his pen on Wednesday.
The state’s legislative chambers overcame differences to pass a compromise bill on Feb. 27, after each body passed different measures—Senate Bill 1406 and House Bill 2312—to legalize cannabis possession, personal cultivation and retail sales for adults 21 years and older.
The problem? Those legalization efforts, including possession laws, would not have gone into full effect until Jan. 1, 2024. Following the legislature’s passage, Jenn Michelle Pedini, Virginia’s executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said that timeline wasn’t good enough and she hoped to continue working to accelerate specific facets of legalization. Northam agreed and pushed to expedite certain components of the legislature’s bill.
On April 7, the General Assembly approved the Democratic governor’s amendment package by way of Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax casting the deciding vote in a split Senate. As a result, adults 21 years and older will be allowed to possess up to 1 ounce of cannabis and grow up to four plants per household starting July 1, 2021—speeding up the timeline 2 1/2 years.
“As of July 1, 2021—who’s counting, but 71 days from now—Virginia will no longer police adults for possessing small amounts of marijuana,” Northam said during his signing ceremony Wednesday. “What this really means is people will no longer be arrested or face penalties for simple possession that follow them and affect their lives. We know that marijuana laws in Virginia and throughout this country have been disproportionately enforced against communities of color and low-income Virginians.”
According to Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC)—the state’s non-partisan research arm—the average arrest rate of Black Virginians for marijuana possession was 3.5 times higher than the arrest rate for white individuals from 2010-2019, and their conviction rate was 3.9 times higher than white individuals.
The social equity implications of ending prohibition were mentioned by everyone who spoke during the governor’s signing ceremony, including Democratic Sens. Louise Lucas and Adam Ebbin, who were primary sponsors of S.B. 1406, Democratic Delegate Charniele Herring, who sponsored H.B. 2312, and Democratic House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn.
Representing the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) as the governor’s lead deputy chief diversity officer, Alaysia Black Hackett said, “This law establishes social equity as a pillar and major priority. Specifically, as mentioned before, it focuses on health equity, economic equity and equity in criminal justice. I want to especially highlight that it was critical for there to be equitable business licensing, especially for those who have been in the past criminalize and disenfranchised by marijuana laws.
“Secondly, the social equity reinvestment fund, an important structure in this legislation, provides resources that will elevate and uplift those persons, neighborhoods, communities and families most negatively impacted by the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws. This bill makes Virginia a national leader as we lean into many uncomfortable truths about the