Virginia will legalize marijuana, but lawmakers need to settle on timetable

Virginia News

Thomas Uhle, grow manager, tends to marijuana plants growing at GB Sciences Louisiana, in Baton Rouge, La., Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019. Today was the first day the marijuana, which was grown for medical purposes, was processed and shipped to patients in Louisiana. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Votes in the General Assembly on Tuesday ensure that Virginia will legalize marijuana. While retail sales are slated to begin in 2024, lawmakers must still hash out key details within the legislation and settle on whether to make possession legal by July 1.

The Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, both under Democratic control, passed legislation on Feb. 5 to legalize use and possession for those 21 years and older. After passing their own measures on crossover day, the chambers took up each other’s legislation for review.

The bills went through committee without much fanfare or debate until the Senate and House began discussions on their respective floors. The votes on Tuesday were similar to those from earlier in the month.

On Feb. 5, two Republicans abstained and one didn’t vote but the House passed its bill 55-42. Hours later, state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), an OB-GYN, and state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier) voted with Democrats in the Senate for a 23-15 bipartisan vote.

On Tuesday, Dunnavant and Vogel voted in support of the House’s bill for a 23-16 bipartisan vote in the Senate. In the House, two Republicans abstained again and the measure advanced 54-42.

The push for legalization has grown, getting public support from Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and others, since the Commonwealth decriminalized cannabis last year. Northam’s proposal for legalization ahead of the 2021 session has since seen several changes, but the governor is likely to sign the measure if it were to get to his desk.

Despite its approval, questions remain over whether the legislature should allow possession before legal sales begin. 

The House’s version of Northam’s proposal, formally introduced by House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), would maintain the civil penalty enacted with decriminalization until 2024.

The Senate’s bill, introduced by state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) and Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), would allow for simple possession, up to an ounce, without any penalty starting in July. An effort to have voters decide on legalization with a non-binding ballot referendum has been added to the Senate’s version, a proposal criticized by Republicans who already have come out against making possession legal.

Northam’s administration had proposed establishing a regulatory system monitored by Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority and a seven-member Cannabis Control Advisory Board within the agency to oversee a legal industry. 

The Senate committee approved a recommendation from a marijuana subcommittee adding an amendment to establish a new regulatory agency and mandatory quarterly progress updates. 

Lawmakers agreed with experts who said that creating a brand new agency would delay Northam’s goal to begin sales in 2023. As a result, both bills have an effective date for retail sales to start in 2024.

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