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Virginia is the first state in the South to legalize marijuana. Photo: Getty Images

Virginia leads the rest of the South in legalizing recreational marijuana

Lawmakers in favor of the move called it urgent to end the fundamental mistreatment of people of color.

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For Virginia, 2021 is shaping up to be a year of trailblazing political moves on behalf of the South.

On March 24, Governor Ralph Northam signed into law the abolition of the death penalty, joining 22 other states, and making Virginia the first Southern state to do so. 

“It’s important that we shut down the machinery of death here in Virginia,” Northam said.

The state has now made a momentous decision in regards to the still controversial topic of cannabis use, production and distribution. Virginia is now the first Southern state to legalize marijuana. 

On Wednesday, April 7, lawmakers voted to approve Gov. Northam’s proposed changes to a bill that would allow adults to possess and harvest small amounts of the plant starting as early as July 2021. 

Northam sent the bill back to lawmakers after making some substantial changes to it. The amendments lawmakers agreed to would expedite the legalization timeline by about three years, well before retail sales would begin. 

This move has already been praised by racial justice advocates. 

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring urged her colleagues to approve the governor’s changes, emphasizing the importance of striving for equity.

“The time has come for our state to legalize marijuana. The amendments ensure that while we’re doing the complicated work of starting up a commercial market, we aren’t delaying immediate reforms that will make our Commonwealth more equitable for all Virginians,” Herring said. 

With the move, Virginia also joins New York in the wave of recent cannabis legalization.

On Wednesday, March 31, New York lawmakers officially legalized marijuana through a bill that would also allow for people with certain marijuana convictions to expunge their records. 

According to data collected by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar rates of usage among both populations.

Virginia Democrats insisted that passing the bill was an urgent matter and a fundamental step in ending the disparate treatment of people of color under the current laws surrounding marijuana use. 

Northam’s amendments cleared the House with a vote of 53-44 with two people abstaining during the one-day session held for the purpose of polishing this year’s legislation. 

The final version of the marijuana law will allow adults 21 and over to legally possess up to one ounce (28.3 grams) of cannabis without the intention to distribute starting on July 1. 

It will allow people to grow marijuana at home — up to four plants per household, also beginning on the 1st. Public use of the drug will remain prohibited. 

“This is not going to generate some ganja fest at Jiffy Lube pavilion out in the parking lot, because that is smoking in public. Just like you can’t drink in public, you can’t smoke in public under this,” Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell said.

It will take years for legal retail sales to begin, but the bill outlines the complex process of establishing a state agency to oversee this brand new marketplace. 

Sales are expected to begin on January 1, 2024.

An overwhelming majority of Virginia Republicans opposed the bill when it initially cycled through the General Assembly, and they railed against the latest version, citing several reasons. 

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

“The hard-fought compromise that barely made it out of this chamber and over to the Senate has just been discarded. And why is that? It’s because some activists want marijuana legalized and they want it legalized now, consequences be damned,” he said.

During the legislative session, the Senate proposed that only possession should be legalized starting in July. But House Democrats argued that legalizing the plant without creating a legal market could potentially promote the growth of the black market. 

Herring said Wednesday that home cultivation would give Virginians a way to legally obtain cannabis while the retail market is conceived.

Northam said in a statement that this year’s legislative session would be regarded as “one of the most consequential policy-reforming periods in modern Virginia history.” 

“As this historic session comes to an end, I am heartened by all that we have done together to advance our priorities and make Virginia stronger, fairer, and more equitable,” he said.

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