Virginia was set to become the first Southern state to legalize marijuana on Sunday after lawmakers approved a bill aimed in part to end the disparate treatment faced by people of color in the criminal justice system .
The bill, sent to Gov. Ralph Northam, would allow pot possession and retailing starting in 2024. Northam has expressed support for legalization.
Last week, New Jersey officially legalized recreational marijuana when Gov. Phil Murphy enacted three bills putting into effect a voting issue widely supported by voters last year. More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia allow the recreational use of marijuana.
Last year, Virginia lawmakers ordered a commission to study and make recommendations on how Virginia should legalize and regulate the growth, sale, and possession of marijuana. The commission focused on policies aimed at correcting historical inequalities and racial injustice caused by the criminalization of marijuana.
The study, published in November, showed that from 2010 to 2019, the average arrest rate of blacks for possession of marijuana was 3.5 times the arrest rate of whites. The commission also made specific recommendations for legalization with an emphasis on fairness.
“I would say that we are on the road to a fair law allowing responsible adults to consume cannabis,” said Senator Adam Ebbin, the main sponsor of the Senate bill.
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Senator Jennifer McClellan expressed disappointment that her proposed amendment to legalize possession on July 1 failed to make the bill final. The amendment would have ended the punishments for people with small amounts of marijuana, but House Democrats argued that legalization without a legal marijuana market could encourage the growth of the black market.
McClellan said she encouraged Northam to add it to the bill he is signing to “address the disproportionate criminalization” communities of color have faced.
McClellan said the state has “a long way to go” to enact the legalization of marijuana in a fair way that repairs the harms of the ban on black and brown communities. McClellan also supports an amendment to give formerly incarcerated people priority for commercial distribution licenses.
“The bill we passed today advances the ball, but let’s be clear: this is not the legalization of marijuana,” McClellan said. “It sets up a framework to put us on the path to legalization in 2024.”
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said the governor wanted to improve the legislation.
“There is still a lot of work to be done, but this bill will help reinvest in our communities and reduce inequalities in our criminal justice system,” Yarmosky said.
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By law, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana will become legal the same day sales begin, and regulations will go into effect to control the marijuana market in Virginia. The legislation will require a second General Assembly vote next year, but only on the regulatory framework and criminal penalties for several offenses, including underage marijuana use and public marijuana use.
A second vote will not be required on legalization.
Contributor: The Associated Press