Virginia State Capitol Building. Photo by Bill Dickinson, via CC

Governor’s Dilemma: Legalize Virginia Marijuana Now or 2024?

RICHMOND, Va. — Gov. Ralph Northam has until the end of this month to make a decision that could shape his legacy as he prepares to leave office, a term that was clouded by a blackface scandal that called into question his commitment to racial justice. The Democrat is being pulled in opposite directions. Conservative lawmakers want him to tap the brakes, slowing down the road to marijuana legalization in order to set up a new regulatory agency that would also be charged with overseeing a new revenue stream for the commonwealth. But progressives say curtailing the war on drugs is needed immediately to stem the tide of mass incarceration. They want action taken now to legalize possession now and worry about corporate profits later. 

Advocates for criminal justice reform are pleading with the governor to amend the marijuana bill both chambers of the state Capitol approved last weekend that delays legalization until New Year’s Day, 2024. They want him to legalize possession this summer on July 1, rather than waiting.

Virginia has already taken action to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, but that leaves open the possibility that communities of color will be disproportionately policed until 2024. 

“The governor has been talking about reparative justice for the communities and individuals harmed by the war on drugs and racially biased policing,” Ashna Khanna, legislative director for the ACLU of Virginia, told The News Station. “A way to make that lip service reality would be to enact these changes now and stopping the harm of marijuana prohibition.”

As governor, Northam has the ability to change the legislation any way he sees fit. But then he has to send it back to lawmakers, some of whom are reluctant to take action too soon. Some members of the General Assembly say they’re concerned about making possession of marijuana legal without first standing up the new regulatory agency to oversee commercial sales. That’s why many have been pressing to link the date of legal possession with commercial sales.

“There’s no legal marketplace. It would just be the illicit market,” state Sen. Adam Ebbin, a Democrat from just outside of Washington, DC, who introduced the bill in the Virginia Senate, said. “We want to create a marketplace that has products that have been tested and not have additives and make sure that the people we’re selling to have been ID’d to make sure they’re 21 and older.”

But advocates say there’s no reason to wait around for the new Cannabis Control Authority to be up and running before possession is legalized. In fact, they say, every day marijuana remains illegal is yet another day police will disproportionately enforce the law in communities of color. 

During a debate on the House of Delegates floor, Delegate Cia Price said she could not support the version of the bill that emerged out of a closed-door conference committee where lawmakers negotiated a compromise draft in secret.

“Even the thought of business before justice is hard to stomach,” Price, a Democrat from the shipping community Newport News, said.

Some of my constituents are in jail right now, and more may be sent to jail while we are establishing a regulatory authority for the business pieces

VA Delegate Cia Price

Negotiations got intense and could have broken down at the last minute, according to the lawmakers who crafted the compromise bill. The session could have ended without legislation, but they succeeded and were able to put the bill on the desk of Governor Northam.

Still, the state Constitution gives Northam a say now. His ability to amend the bill means the debate will remain intense for the remainder of this month. 

“It’s a step forward for an increase of profit for the general fund, but it is another stop sign and another barrier to justice and liberation for Black Virginians,” Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice Virginia, told The News Station. “The governor said that this bill was supposed to prioritize racial equity, but it’s clear that it only prioritized a cannabis profit industry.”

The deadline for the governor to take action is March 31.

Michael Pope is a reporter for Virginia Public Radio. He's an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria. He has reported for NPR, the New York Daily News and the Alexandria Gazette Packet. He has a master's degree in American Studies from Florida State University, and he is a former adjunct professor at Tallahassee Community College. He is the author of four books.

Michael Pope is a reporter for Virginia Public Radio. He's an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria. He has reported for NPR, the New York Daily News and the Alexandria Gazette Packet. He has a master's degree in American Studies from Florida State University, and he is a former adjunct professor at Tallahassee Community College. He is the author of four books.

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