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. It is now up to the General Assembly to approve his changes at their one-day session in early-April.
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.
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