by Brandon Jarvis

Virginia Democrats voted Saturday to eventually legalize marijuana across the Commonwealth by beginning the process to create the infrastructure for retail sale and recreational use.

As of January 1, 2024, adult possession of marijuana will be legal in Virginia. Everything else, however, is still up in the air because a reenactment clause was included in the final bill and that covers the majority of the dense legislation.

A reenactment clause is a measure that will require the body to reconsider and approve those sections once again next year. The reenactment bothered some Democrats, they expressed their displeasure by reminding the chamber it transforms this into a bill that is not actually a legalization bill. 

“This bill is not marijuana legalization,” Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said on the Senate floor. She then elaborated by saying that it will help provide the framework for a path to legalization in 2024, but marijuana will not be legalized anytime soon. 

McClellan pushed for simple adult possession to be legal in 2021 as the Senate bill was moving through committees earlier this session. She eventually voted in favor of the bill but noted that there are still many steps between this and actual legalization. “This bill is not worse than the status quo,” she said when explaining her support. 

The Virginia chapters of the ACLU, Marijuana Justice, and Justice Forward released statements opposing the legislation calling it symbolic. “This bill does not advance the cause of equal justice or racial justice in Virginia,” the groups said in a joint statement. “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 and we urge lawmakers to vote against it.”

The Virginia NAACP originally released a statement opposing the bill on Saturday due to probable cause provisions in the legislation. After changes were made in the conference committee, the organization then issued a new statement in support of the bill. “We are grateful that legislators successfully removed the most concerning aspects of the proposed legislation,” said State Conference NAACP President Robert N. Barnette, Jr. “While the final conference report is not perfect, it’s a step in the right direction and we hope legislators will move forward with its passage.”

All but one Democratic Senator, Chap Petersen of Fairfax, voted in support of the bill. With all Republicans voted against the bill, it passed on a one-vote margin. In the House, Six Democrats chose to sit out from participating in the vote. This came after many of them expressed concern with the reenactment clause covering the criminal justice reforms in the bill. 

Delegate Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) was one of the House Democrats who did not vote on the bill. In an interview Saturday night, Rasoul said he is hoping that Governor Ralph Northam will work to improve the reenactment aspect. “Many of us are concerned that many of the criminal justice reforms were reenacted (not passed this year),” he wrote on Twitter after the vote. “I am hoping the Governor will put back in strong criminal justice reforms as he amends the bill.” 

The House bill’s original sponsor, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) said this bill is a step in the right direction. “I think it moves us in a direction to strike down those institutional barriers in over-policing, over-arrest, over-convictions of African Americans.”

Pretty much everything else in the bill that spans 264 pages is covered by reenactment; the regulatory agency, what you can grow at your home, and every other aspect involved in facilitating the legalization of marijuana in an equitable and appropriate method, which has been the stated goal for Democrats.

This leads to another potential problem for Democrats with the reenactment aspect of the bill: All 100 House of Delegate seats are up for reelection this November. If Republicans gain control of the House, it could cause a wrinkle in the process. When asked about this possible scenario, House Speaker Filler-Corn’s communications director said the Republicans will not be winning the House back this November. 

Either way, simple possession for adults should be safe as it was excluded from reenactment and is set for legalization on Jan 1, 2024, pending Governor Northam’s signature. The governor can amend bills and send them back to the legislators for consideration when they reconvene for the veto session in April. 

Northam made legalization a priority before the legislative session began and he was instrumental in the final negotiations between chambers on this bill. According to the Washington Post, Northam said on Saturday night that this legislation is a  “huge step,” but he is looking forward to improving the bill.

His office has not responded to requests for additional comments.

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By vascope