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Virginia becomes first southern state to legalize cannabis

RICHMOND, Virginia (AP) – Virginia became the first southern state to legalize marijuana on Wednesday, as lawmakers voted to approve Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed changes to a bill that will allow adults to own and cultivate small quantities from July.

Northam sent the bill back to lawmakers, significantly altered from the version they sent him in February. The amendments lawmakers agreed to on Wednesday would speed up the legalization deadline by about three years, well before retail sales begin, a move that has been applauded by racial justice advocates.

“The time has come for our state to legalize marijuana. The amendments ensure that while we do the complicated job of strengthening a commercial market, we do not delay immediate reforms that will make our Commonwealth fairer for all Virginians, ”said Charniele Herring, parliamentary majority leader, urging his colleagues to approve. governor changes.

Democrats said the bill was a matter of urgency, a step needed to end what state figures show as disparate treatment of people of color under current marijuana laws.

Northam’s amendments cleared the House 53-44 with two abstentions in a one-day session held in an attempt to put the finishing touches on the legislation of the year. In the Senate, lawmakers blocked 20-20 and Democratic Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax broke the tie, voting to approve the changes.

The final version of the legislation would allow adults 21 and over to legally own up to one ounce (28.3 grams) of cannabis without the intention of distributing it as of July 1. It would also allow home cultivation of up to four plants per household from July. 1. Public use of the drug will be prohibited.

“It’s not going to generate ganjafest at the Jiffy Lube pavilion in the parking lot, because it’s smoking in public.” Just like you can’t drink in public, you can’t smoke in public under this, ”said Democratic Senator Scott Surovell.

It will be years before legal retail sales follow legalized possession. The bill outlines the complex process of creating a new state agency to oversee the marijuana market, with the start of sales and regulations taking effect on January 1, 2024.

Many parts of the bill dealing with the regulatory framework will need to be re-approved by lawmakers next year. Possession and cultivation pieces will not.

Republicans, who overwhelmingly opposed the bill when it was first passed by the General Assembly, protested against the latest version citing several reasons.

GOP Del. Chris Head called the bill a “train wreck”.

“The hotly contested compromise that barely managed to get out of this room into the Senate has just been ruled out. And why is that? It’s because some activists want marijuana legalized and they want it to be legalized now, the consequences are damned, ”he said.

Some Republicans have also challenged the labor provisions in the new version of the bill, particularly a change whereby the government can revoke or suspend licenses issued under the new law in cases where an employer has refused to ” remain neutral with regard to any organizing effort. by employees. “

During the legislative session, the Senate sought to legalize simple possession starting in July, but House Democrats argued that legalizing without a legal marijuana market could help the growth of the black market. The bill passed in February would not have legalized simple possession until 2024.

Herring said on Wednesday that home cultivation will give Virginians a way to legally acquire cannabis while the retail market is established.

Many of the other amendments lawmakers dealt with on Wednesday were minor or technical in nature and more easily removed. For example, both houses quickly approved an adjustment to a sweeping voting right measure that supporters say will protect and expand access to the ballot box. And they approved minor changes to a measure meant to improve the struggling unemployment system.

Both houses also approved a Northam budget amendment that will fund an external investigation into a small component of a larger controversy over the state’s parole board. Republicans criticized the governor’s proposal for being much less substantial than necessary and said it would allow the administration to remain silent on any unflattering conclusions.

Lawmakers had no veto power to consider this year. Northam took action on 552 bills in the 2021 session and has not vetoed any, according to his office.

The Senate met in a science museum that was the home of the chamber during the pandemic to allow for greater social distancing.

This chamber also welcomed its new member, Republican Senator Travis Hackworth, who won a special election held last month to take the seat of the late Senator Ben Chafin. Chafin died in January after contracting COVID-19.

The House conducted its business almost as in the ordinary session.

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