Democratic Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia signed a bill to legalize cannabis on Wednesday, marking the first time a state in the South has approved the use and sale of recreational marijuana for adults. The measure moves up the legalization of simple possession of cannabis to July 1, two years earlier than legislation originally approved by lawmakers in February.
The governor said that the legislation is a “milestone” for the state and called it a step toward “building a more equitable and just Virginia and reforming our criminal justice system to make it more fair.”
“What this really means is that people will no longer be arrested or face penalties for simple possession that follow them and affect their lives,” Governor Ralph Northam said during a press conference with activists and state lawmakers that was streamed live on Facebook on Wednesday afternoon. “We know that marijuana laws in Virginia and throughout this country have been disproportionately enforced against communities of color and low-income Virginians.”
Beginning on July 1, 2021, adults 21 and older will be permitted to possess up to one ounce of marijuana. Adults will also be permitted to grow up to four cannabis plants at home, but only in a location that is out of public view. Plants must also be tagged with the owner’s driver’s license or identification number and a notice stating that they are for personal use. The bill also “modifies several other criminal penalties related to marijuana, and imposes limits on dissemination of criminal history record information related to certain marijuana offenses.”
The legislation signed by Governor Ralph Northam on Wednesday also establishes a regulatory and taxation framework for the commercial cultivation, manufacturing, and sale of recreational cannabis. The provisions governing cannabis commerce are slated to go into effect on July 1, 2024, in order to allow state officials time to draft regulations and issue licenses to approved cannabis businesses.
With Governor Ralph Northam Signing The Bill, Personal Possession Legalization Start Date Moves Up
The original version of the legislation passed by lawmakers in February delayed the implementation of the provisions legalizing personal possession of cannabis until 2024, when legal recreational sales of marijuana are slated to start. But in March, Northam returned the bill to the legislature with proposed amendments, including one that would move the legalization of cannabis possession to this year.
“I personally don’t think we should be arresting or penalizing somebody for something we’re getting ready to legalize,” Northam said last month. “I plan to place a number of amendments in front of the legislature and hopefully we’ll be able to move those forward.”
Jenn Pedini, the development director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and the executive director of the marijuana policy reform group’s Virginia chapter, appeared with Northam at the signing ceremony for the legislation on Wednesday.
“Today, together, we celebrate an extraordinary victory for cannabis justice in the Commonwealth,” Pedini said. “Still, we have so much more work ahead, and NORML remains committed to continuing our efforts on behalf of Virginians, with the legislature, with the administration, and with the new Cannabis Control Authority to make sure we do get this right.”
At the signing ceremony on Wednesday, Northam noted that studies have shown Black people are more than three times more likely as white people to be arrested for a cannabis offense, despite similar rates of cannabis use among the racial groups. Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn said that the “prohibition of cannabis has been long, unequally enforced, and used to overpolice our Brown and Black communities.”
“This bill is about restorative justice and helping economically distressed localities in all parts of the commonwealth,” said House Majority leader Charniele Herring.