Governor Northam Proposes Accelerating Marijuana Legalization in Virginia
Amendments address inequitable enforcement of marijuana laws, legalize simple possession on July 1, 2021
RICHMOND, VA (STL.News) Governor Ralph Northam today proposed moving up the legalization of simple possession of marijuana to July 1, 2021, nearly three years sooner than previously planned. The Governor also announced he is proposing changes that advance public health protections, set clear expectations for labor protections in the cannabis industry, and begin to seal criminal records immediately. The changes come in the form of amendments to Senate Bill 1406, sponsored by Senators Adam Ebbin and Louise Lucas, and House Bill 2312, sponsored by Majority Leader Charniele Herring, which legalize the adult-use of marijuana in the Commonwealth.
“Our Commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way,” said Governor Northam. “Virginia will become the 15th state to legalize marijuana—and these changes will ensure we do it with a focus on public safety, public health, and social justice. I am grateful to the advocates and legislators for their dedicated work on this important issue, and I look forward to this legislation passing next month.”
A report of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) issued in November 2020 found that Black Virginians were more than three times as likely to be arrested for simple possession of marijuana. Data from Virginia courts show that trend has continued since the simple possession of marijuana was “decriminalized,” punishable with a $25 civil fine, on July 1, 2020. Governor Northam said this fact drove his proposal to advance legalization by three years, and that he remains committed to working with legislators and advocates to repair past harm.
Governor Northam proposed the following legislative changes:
- Public health: Governor Northam is proposing two budget amendments. The first change immediately funds a public awareness campaign on the health and safety risks of marijuana. The other measure funds training to help law enforcement officers recognize and prevent drugged driving. These amendments also include explicit language directing ongoing support for public health education.
- Worker protections: Governor Northam’s amendments authorize the new Cannabis Control Authority to revoke a company’s business license if they interfere with union organizing efforts, fail to pay prevailing wage as defined by the United States Department of Labor, or classify more than 10 percent of employees as independent contractors.
- Ending disproportionate enforcement: The Governor’s amendments allow adults to legally possess up to one ounce of cannabis, without intent to distribute, beginning July 1, 2021. These amendments would maintain current public safety measures that prohibit smoking while driving, smoking while driving a school bus, and possession on school grounds, for example. Governor Northam noted that these are not “new crimes,” but rather the continuation of common-sense policies to protect children, drivers, pedestrians, and others.
- Speeding up sealing of records and expungements: Governor Northam’s amendments allow for expungement and sealing of criminal records on marijuana to begin as soon as state agencies are able to do so and simplify the criteria for when records can be sealed. The General Assembly passed broader legislation to implement comprehensive expungement reform beginning in 2025. This generational change requires extensive updates to state agency computer systems and processes, which were made possible by funding in the Governor’s introduced budget. In the coming months, Governor Northam will continue to work hand in hand with legislators to make Virginia’s criminal justice system more equitable, including through efforts to resentence individuals previously convicted for marijuana offenses.
- Home cultivation: The Governor’s changes will allow households to grow up to four plants beginning on July 1, 2021. The amendments would require the plants to be labeled with identification information, out of sight from public view, and out of range of individuals under the age of 21.
“I’m pleased with the improvements the Governor has proposed,” said Delegate Lamont Bagby, Chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. “We are doing everything possible to repair and redress the harm done to communities of color most impacted by marijuana criminalization—the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus stands in support of the Governor’s amendments because justice must not be delayed.”
“My colleagues and I worked closely with Governor Northam to ensure this bill prioritizes public health and social equity,” said Senator Adam Ebbin. “I look forward to adopting these amendments and passing this important legislation into law.”
“Virginia’s communities of color deserve equity—and that means taking action now to end the disproportionate fines, arrests, and convictions of marijuana offenses,” said Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. “I am proud of the work to improve this bill for all of the people we serve, and I look forward to this legislation becoming law.”
“The Governor’s amendments are another step towards ending the targeting of minority communities over marijuana-related offenses and enacting a framework for the legal sale and use of cannabis,” said Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn. “I’m grateful to Governor Northam, my colleagues, and all the advocates who worked so hard on this important legislation.”
“Governor Northam’s amendments will stop the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws beginning this summer, while also focusing on public safety and educating our youth,” said Leader Charniele Herring. “This is a very important step for equity, and I’m grateful for the Governor’s leadership.”
“Governor Northam has listened carefully to each of our concerns and addressed them fully,” said Senator Mamie Locke. “In Virginia, we are legalizing marijuana in the right way.”
“Virginia is one step closer to legalizing marijuana on July 1, 2021,” said Senator Louise Lucas. “Following the example of several other states, the Governor’s amendments allow us to set up a safe, regulated, and equitable market while immediately protecting communities of color.”
“These amendments provide needed support and training to law enforcement and address concerns I originally had about the legislation,” said Senator Richard Stuart.
“It’s important that as we take our time to thoughtfully stand up this industry, we also provide clarity and don’t confuse Virginians by punishing them for something that will now be legal,” said Senator Jill Vogel. “These amendments do just that.”