Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is moving on Wednesday to speed up marijuana legalization in Virginia, backing changes to the legislation that would do away with penalties for possession of an ounce, effective this summer.
Northam will also seek to accelerate spending on public education campaigns and training for law enforcement related to the health and safety risks of marijuana.
These changes and more come in the form of proposed amendments to legislation approved by the state's General Assembly last month, which would have legalized marijuana in 2024, in tandem with the launch of a legalized market. The assembly reconvenes April 7 to consider Northam’s proposed amendments to and vetoes of the legislation.
Civil rights groups and some Democrats in the Virginia House have argued for weeks that continuing to penalize Virginians until the state can profit from marijuana sales is morally corrupt. Critics also say it runs counter to statements by the party that addressing racial inequities in the enforcement of marijuana laws is the primary motive for the legislation.
They cited state data showing that, of the 4,505 people cited for simple possession since the assembly decriminalized marijuana last summer, 52% were Black and 45% were white, while Black people make up 20% of the state’s population and white people 70%.
Northam heeded their message.
“Our Commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way,” Northam said in a statement Tuesday. “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. I am grateful to the advocates and legislators for their dedicated work on this important issue, and I look forward to this legislation passing next month.”
Virginia would not legalize marijuana sales until 2024, and the legislation would keep in place all current penalties for selling marijuana. Northam is proposing to allow Virginians to grow a limited amount of marijuana at home, but otherwise, the illicit market or out-of-state selling would be the only way people would be able to obtain marijuana.