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Marijuana will be legal in Virginia on July 1, years earlier than planned

T-shirts are for sale along Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach on April 7, 2021. Virginia lawmakers passed a proposal from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam to legalize marijuana this summer instead of 2024.
T-shirts are for sale along Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach on April 7, 2021. Virginia lawmakers passed a proposal from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam to legalize marijuana this summer instead of 2024. (Kristen Zeis/The Virginian-Pilot)

Virginia lawmakers agreed Wednesday to a proposal from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam to legalize marijuana this summer instead of waiting until 2024, as the legislature had earlier voted to do.

The state already had decriminalized the substance last year. And in a historic shift for this traditionally conservative Southern state, the Democratic controlled General Assembly voted in February to allow its possession, manufacture and sale.

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After negotiations, lawmakers decided to legalize simple possession in 2024 — the same year pot dispensaries will be allowed to open — in a bill they sent to the governor for a signature.

Marijuana bill sponsors in the House and Senate later said they would support moving the date up.

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Under mounting pressure from civil rights advocates, Northam proposed an amendment that would legalize possession of up to an ounce beginning July 1 of this year.

Lawmakers gathered Wednesday to consider this and other proposed amendments and possible vetoes to legislationdrafted during the regular session.

The amendments that included earlier legalization passed 53-44 in the House, with two delegates abstaining. The Senate vote was tied at 20-20, but Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax broke the tie with a vote in favor of earlier legalization.

The vote fell down party lines, with Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment calling the language “horrifically flawed” and Democratic lawmakers touting the change as a means to alleviate the disproportionate damage that marijuana laws have had on Black and brown Virginians.

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“Legalization will bring an end to the thousands of low-level marijuana infractions occurring annually in the Commonwealth — ending a discriminatory practice that far too often targets Virginians who are young, poor, and people of color,” the legalization advocacy group NORML said in a prepared statement after Wednesday’s vote. “This is an incredible victory for Virginia.”

Now the amended legislation goes back to Northam for a final signature.

Since last year’s decriminalization, the punishment for being caught with up to an ounce of marijuana has been a $25 civil fine, akin to a parking ticket. Before that, it could have resulted in a criminal conviction, a $500 fine and 30 days in jail for a first offense — and up to a year in jail for a second or subsequent offense.

A November report commissioned by the state 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 marijuana possession was decriminalized.

Northam said this drove his proposal to move legalization up by three years.

From 2010 to 2018, there were almost 200,000 marijuana possession arrests in Virginia, and nearly 39,000 of those were in Hampton Roads, according to Old Dominion University’s 2019 State of the Region report.

About 68% of Virginia’s registered voters support legalizing marijuana, according to poll results released in February by the Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Christopher Newport University.

Ana Ley, 757-446-2478, ana.ley@pilotonline.com

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