Virginia governor seeks to accelerate marijuana legalization

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FILE - In this March 30, 2021, file photo, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference to announce the expansion of commuter rail in Virginia at the Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) Alexandria Station, in Alexandria, Va. Adults in Virginia could legally possess and grow small amounts of marijuana beginning in July, about three years sooner than initially envisioned, under changes the governor proposed Wednesday, March 31, to legislation passed earlier this year.(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

RICHMOND, Va. – Adults in Virginia could legally possess and grow small amounts of marijuana beginning in July, about three years sooner than initially envisioned, under changes the governor proposed Wednesday to legislation passed earlier this year.

“Our Commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way,” Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam said in a news release outlining the date change and other amendments he is seeking. “Virginia will become the 15th state to legalize marijuana — and these changes will ensure we do it with a focus on public safety, public health, and social justice.”

Advocates on all sides of the issue have been eagerly waiting for weeks to see what changes Northam would propose to the bill that cleared the General Assembly in February.

The measure has been a top priority for Democrats who control the state government, who consider it a necessary step to end the disparate treatment of people of color under current marijuana laws. But lawmakers struggled to reach agreement during the session, passing a bill that almost no one seemed fully satisfied with. It would not have legalized marijuana until 2024, which racial justice advocates said was far too long to wait.

A coalition of advocacy groups — including Marijuana Justice, Justice Forward Virginia, RISE for Youth and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia — hailed the July 1 legalization date as “the first step toward ending racist marijuana law enforcement.” The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus also praised the amendments.

“This important change to the legislation recently passed by the General Assembly will allow the Commonwealth to begin addressing the tragic consequences of communities of color being over-policed in the failed War on Drugs. Marijuana laws are more harshly enforced in Black and Brown communities, and we cannot risk more people being caught in the system for acting in ways that will soon be legal," the coalition said in a statement.

Northam’s office said his decision to speed up legalization was driven by a state study from last year that found Black Virginians were disproportionately policed and convicted for using marijuana, and by data from state courts that show the trend has continued even since lawmakers decriminalized marijuana last year.

Discussions with lawmakers went down to the wire; Wednesday was Northam’s deadline for taking action on legislation.