In contrast to the chamber’s position in discussions with the Senate, House of Delegates representatives are now endorsing a drive to legalize marijuana in 2021.
Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn announced on March 26, 2021, that she supports pushing up the date for adult recreational cannabis use in Virginia to this summer. It’s a significant improvement pushed by activists who have chastised legislators for passing bills last month that would postpone legalization until 2024.
“The time is now for us to act,” Filler-Corn said. The house speaker also stated that she would push for other changes, including one that would allow people who are presently imprisoned for minor marijuana-related crimes to be resentenced.
Filler-Corn also wants a provision starting July 1 that will immediately seal marijuana-related criminal backgrounds for nonviolent violations. She also wants the law modified to allow for the personal cultivation of “a small number” of marijuana plants in the home.
Speaker Filler-Corn also encouraged her colleagues to do more to fix historical and current injustices in marijuana law enforcement. “We must also address the historic targeting of black and brown individuals over nonviolent marijuana-related offenses,” she added on her tweet, referring to the three more provisions he has suggested. “Legalization alone is not enough.”
The National Assembly approved the legalization of marijuana at the end of February, but not until January 1, 2024, when its first legal marijuana businesses will open. Activists were frustrated by the decision to link legalization to commercial sales, arguing that waiting three years would unnecessarily perpetuate the racial inequalities in policing that lawmakers said they were seeking to fix.
The bill is now before Governor Ralph Northam, who expressed support for pushing up the deadline this week. Until Wednesday, he has proposed changes to the bill, which will be debated in the General Assembly on April 7.
On March 24, 2021, Gov. Ralph Northam said he also wants to push up the effective date, “I personally don’t think we should be arresting or penalizing somebody for something we’re getting ready to legalize.” He also added, “I plan to place a number of amendments in front of the legislature, and hopefully we’ll be able to move those forward.”
The bill that passed the legislature last month would keep possession and cultivation for personal use illegal until January 1, 2024, when the retail market would open. Advocates have argued that those practices should be legalized as soon as possible while commercial market regulations are established.
During the session, the Senate amended its version of the bill to make marijuana possession of an ounce or less legal on July 1. House members voted against the amendment, believing that it would encourage the illegal market to thrive, making it more difficult for the new legal market to prosper once it was up and running.
Neither proposal would have permitted home cultivation until 2024, with a limit of four plants per household.
Filler-Corn agreed but added that before the bill is signed, she needs to make some changes.
She described three amendments she hopes would be integrated into the legislation in a Twitter post:
1) Resentencing individuals who have been convicted of nonviolent cannabis crime.
2) Automatically expunging convictions for nonviolent marijuana offenses beginning July 1.
3) Legalizing home cultivation for medical, adult-use beginning July 1.
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said on March 26, 2021, that any attempt to speed up the legalization period must be followed by support for public security initiatives, which Northam is expected to discuss when he sends down reforms, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
“Basically, if you’re going to legalize simple possession July 1, there has to be a plan for education and public safety,” she said. Herring was known as the one who sponsored the legislation in the House.
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, who had expressed questions about legalization this year, thanked the Filler-Corn for supporting the changes, which would expedite resentencing and expungement requirements for past crimes. “Addressing past inequities is crucial,” she said.
Sen. Jennifer McClellen, who was campaigning for her party’s democratic presidential nomination this year and pressed for an earlier legalization enactment in the bicameral talks, applauded the House leaders’ support. “I’m encouraged by the strong momentum behind our efforts to legalize simple possession of marijuana in 2021,” she tweeted. “Marijuana legalization should center equity starting in July, following the goals of my amendment. I’m optimistic that we will get it done.”
The legalization bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Adam Ebbin’s staffer, Henry Watkins, said he is “glad House leadership is now fully supporting this position” regarding the ending prohibition in 2021. “He is supportive of the additional amendments the speaker laid out to reduce the harms of the failed prohibition,” he added.
Following weeks of campaigning by supporters, who are also pursuing reforms to reduce punishments for children found with the opioid, the governor’s support and the change in the House came as a surprise.
In a letter to Northam earlier this month, a coalition of radical advocacy organizations, including the ACLU, Marijuana Justice, Justice Forward, and RISE for Youth, wrote to him, “the current marijuana legislation does not reflect your promise to prioritize racial equity and justice, as it permits the over-policing and excessive punishment of people of color and young people.”
“Virginia has the incredible opportunity to be the first state in the South to legalize marijuana, but your job will not be complete if you do not legalize in a way that rights the wrongs of the disparate impact the War on Drugs has had on Black and Brown communities.”
Despite taking the substance at the same pace, Black people are four times more likely than white people to be cited after Virginia lowered the punishment for simple possession to a $25 fine last summer. According to state court reports, the discrepancy is even greater in some areas, such as Hanover County, where Black people make up just 10% of the population but receive more than 60% of the tickets released.
Marijuana Justice, one of many advocates, celebrated house speaker’s statement saying, “This is huge! Congrats to everyone who made their voices heard, this is what collective demands can do!”
The Support for Marijuana Legalization in Virginia
Despite the unending criticism that the bill receives, there are still individuals who fully support it. According to a poll released this month, support for marijuana legalization is high in Virginia. It found that more than two-thirds of adults in the Commonwealth (68%) support adult-use legalization, with a small majority (51%) of Republican voters supporting it.