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Virginia House and Senate back legalization of marijuana

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Medical Marijuana Dispensary In Operation in Richmond

Virginia lawmakers took key steps toward making Virginia the 16th state to legalize marijuana, as the House and Senate voted separately Friday to allow recreational use by adults, with retail sales by 2024.

The Senate voted 23-15 in favor of legalization, as two Republicans, Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, joined the Democrats.

Earlier Friday, the House of Delegates voted 55-42 along partisan lines to support legalization.

Gov. Ralph Northam backs legalization. He and the measure’s key supporters frame it as an important equity issue, saying the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws has caused lasting harm to Black and brown Virginians.

During Friday’s floor debate, Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, said thousands of Virginians are arrested for having marijuana and that Blacks are more than three times more likely than whites to be arrested even though they use marijuana at a similar rate.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Lucas said.

She said the state’s decriminalization measure that took effect July 1, eliminating a criminal penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana, was just a first step.

“Let’s vote right now and make Virginia the 16th state to legalize sales,” she said.

The House and Senate bills would make it legal for people 21 or older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana. The bills also would commence the process of expungement for misdemeanor convictions related to marijuana.

The bills include a special licensing program for people and communities that have been impacted by disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws. The program seeks to ensure that people and communities directly impacted by the enforcement are represented in the new marijuana market.

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, who sponsored the House bill, tweeted after the measure passed: “This legislation will provide long overdue justice for so many marginalized communities in Virginia.”

Lawmakers will have to reconcile key differences in the massive bills before the legislation goes to Northam for his signature. For example, the Senate bill would legalize simple possession as of July 1. The House measure calls for ending a civil penalty on less than an ounce of marijuana once the regulated market is set up — a behemoth task expected to yield legal sales in 2023 or 2024.

Under provisions moving through the legislature and as proposed by Northam, Virginians would be allowed to grow marijuana plants in their own homes once the regulations and safety guidance are implemented. People would be limited to two mature plants and two immature plants per household, not per individual.

Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, an opponent of legal marijuana, said during Friday’s floor debate that the legislature should wait to see the results of decriminalization before moving forward with a 280-page bill.

And he said the governor’s office had spent too much time on marijuana when it should have focused more on distributing COVID-19 vaccines.

“I find it inexcusable that this administration has devoted more time and energy and effort in getting THC into the bloodstreams of our minority community than it has in getting the coronavirus vaccine into the bloodstreams of our minority community,” he said. “It is a gross failure.”

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Twitter: @AndrewCainRTD

Staff writers Patrick Wilson and Mel Leonor contributed to this report.

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