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Senate marijuana panel proposes changes to Northam legalization bill, would delay sales until 2024

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In this September image marijuana plants grow inside the Clone Room at Green Leaf Medical, a new medical marijuana dispensary selling a variety of cannabis products in Richmond.

Localities that don’t wish to have marijuana retailers in their jurisdictions may be able to opt out via referendum, according to a recommendation from a Senate panel examining a proposal to legalize the drug in Virginia.

The panel’s recommendation is a departure from the proposal crafted by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, which would instead call for localities to opt in via a city ordinance.

Both avenues would still allow localities to reject legal marijuana retailers within their bounds. The administration had argued that an opt-in process would promote public conversations about the economic benefits of legalizing sales, rather than drawbacks.

The legalization of marijuana and the creation of a regulated market for the drug are among Northam’s top priorities during the legislature’s winter gathering. The hefty proposal comes after years of advocacy by civil rights groups that argue the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws has harmed communities of color.

The proposal faces a long road ahead. This week, a coalition led by the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana launched a campaign opposing legalization of the drug in Virginia, arguing in favor of decriminalization, but opposing what they called an “addiction-for-profit industry.”

The group includes the Virginia Sheriffs Association, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, the Virginia Society of Addiction Medicine and others. Smart Approaches to Marijuana is a national group that has opposed the commercialization of marijuana in several states.

Marijuana legalization faced opposition from the three Republicans on the Senate subcommittee that took up the measure this week, but they nevertheless offered input.

House lawmakers have yet to weigh in on the proposal. The bill is scheduled to be heard for the first time on Friday by a house Courts of Justice panel.

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

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