The Virginia House of Delegates and Senate passed legislation Friday that would legalize marijuana for adult recreational use, with retail sales lagging years behind.
If the legislation is signed into law, Virginia would join 15 other states and the neighboring District of Columbia in legalizing small amounts of marijuana for adult recreational use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Virginia Marijuana Legalization Bill
The bill “is a forward-thinking, deliberative approach to create a regulated adult-use market for cannabis, which will reform our criminal justice system and begin the long process of undoing the harms of prohibition,” Sen. Adam Ebbin (D) said on the floor, adding that the “Commonwealth’s prohibition on cannabis has clearly failed.”
Controlling the state government, Democrats prioritized the complicated legislation. But there is still much work to be done. There are significant differences between the two chambers’ bills that must still be debated before they can be sent to Governor Ralph Northam, a democrat who, until recently, opposed marijuana reform.
However, In his annual address to lawmakers last month, he said legalization would ensure Virginia is a “more just state that works better for everyone.”
“We’ve done the research, and we can do this the right way, leading with social equity, public health, and public safety,” Northam said at the time.
The House passed its version of the legislation on a 55-42 vote. The Senate advanced its bill 23-15.
Both chambers’ measures would legalize possession of an ounce of marijuana or less for those 21 and older, though that provision has different start dates. Both bills would also start the process of expunging some previous misdemeanor marijuana-related offenses, starting July 1. Both measures envision retail sales starting in 2024, overseen by a newly created regulatory entity. And both would use the biggest portion of the tax revenue from sales to fund pre-K for at-risk kids.
Opposition to Virginia Marijuana Legalization
Lawmakers, law enforcement groups, religious organizations, and addiction treatment advocates have voiced opposition to the measure.
Some House members also opposed the legislation during Friday’s floor debate, claiming that legalization would lead to increased youth use and impaired driving.
Regina Whitsett, executive director of Substance Abuse Free Environment, Inc., said legalizing marijuana will increase the number of drug-impaired driving crashes and the use of marijuana among youth. The group is also concerned that edible marijuana products could get into the hands of young children and could result in accidental poisonings.
“It’s really not marijuana legalization, it’s marijuana commercialization they’re trying to pass,” Whitsett said.
Both versions of the legislation have safety provisions that deal with packaging, advertising and consumer education- a common practice in states with legal cannabis- specifically designed to prevent harming young children as well as inform the consumer.
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said law enforcement officials are concerned that legalization will drive up use of marijuana overall and cause more impaired driving crashes.
“The issue of looking at this as a profit industry for Virginia is negated by health care costs, by impaired driving costs, by the fact that young people are exposed to this,” Schrad said. “There are just a lot of other issues and costs that come from marijuana legalization.”
Potential Benefits of Virginia Marijuana Legalization
Fortunately the data from states with legal adult-use recreational marijuana doesn’t support these opposition assertions. In each of these states, youth use rates remained stable after legalization and DWI related traffic accidents actually decreased.
Legalization also brings in substantial tax revenue. A recent study conducted by the legislature’s research and watchdog agency, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, found that legalizing and taxing commercial marijuana sales could generate between $154 and $308 million by the fifth year of sales. Tax revenue from cannabis sales would partly fund pre-K education programs at at-risk youth and would support public health initiatives.
Del. Don Scott (D) emphasized that the bill “provides social equity and helps improve those communities who have been most impacted and harmed by the prohibition against cannabis.”
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, who is the chief patron of the House bill, said the legislation is a matter of urgency for people of color who have been disproportionately penalized for marijuana-related offenses.
The commission’s study found that Black Virginians comprise a disproportionately high percentage of individuals arrested and convicted of marijuana offenses. From 2010–2019, the average arrest rate of Black individuals for marijuana possession was 3.5 times higher than the arrest rate for white individuals, according to the study, which also found Black individuals were also convicted at a much higher rate — 3.9 times higher than white individuals.
“These communities have been hurting. The time to provide redress is now,” Herring said
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