Virginia lawmakers approve landmark adult-use cannabis legalization measures

Bethan Rose Jenkins, Cannabis News Writer/Editorial

On Friday, February 5, legislation that would legalize cannabis for recreational purposes was approved by both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly. However, retail sales are not expected to begin for several years. 

The Democrat-controlled state government has been prioritizing adult-use cannabis legalization in Virginia for some time. The House approved its bill with a 55-42 vote, while the Senate progressed its version with a vote of 23-15.

Despite major cannabis reform efforts in Virginia, a final plan is unlikely to be hashed out until the two chamber’s resolve their differences in regards to their respective bills. Once this step is complete, the legislation will land on Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk, where it may undergo additional amendments.

“I think that Virginia is on a path to an equitable legalization plan for [cannabis]. There have been a few bumps, but I’m hopeful that we’ll have a polished bill we can agree upon in the next few weeks,” said one of the chief patrons of Virginia State Senate’s bill, Sen. Adam Ebbin.

Virginia could join 15 other states that have legalized adult-use cannabis 

A statement issued by the National Conference of State Legislatures has confirmed that, once Virginia’s adult-use cannabis measure is signed into law, the state will join 15 other U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

Although there are clear differences between the two bills initiated by both chambers, each measure would legalize the possession of up to one ounce of cannabis for individuals age 21 and older. However, the date on which this provision is effectuated would depend on which chambers’ bill progresses.

Both measures would kick-start the process of expunging previous misdemeanor cannabis-related offenses on July 1. Another similarity is that 2024 is the chosen year during which lawmakers envision retail sales which would be overseen by a newly established regulatory body – commencing. 

Both measures would also designate cannabis tax revenue funding to pre-kindergarten support for at-risk children, as well as impose safety provisions that deal with advertising, education and packaging.

Although certain aspects of Virginia’s adult-use cannabis measures are similar, there are also a number of disparities. For example, the Senate version would enable localities to opt-out of cannabis retail stores. Moreover, unlike the House-approved version of the bill, the Senate version demands that lawmakers cast a second vote next year to establish regulatory framework.

“The House and Senate are going to have to come together and pass legislation that is the same legislation. If we don’t, it doesn’t get to Northam,” said Del. Terry Kilgore (R-Gate City).

Cannabis decriminalization legislation was passed last year in Virginia

The latest attempt to enact recreational cannabis in Virginia follows last year’s passing of a decriminalization measure. Approved by the new Democratic majority at the General Assembly on May 21, 2020, Virginia’s decriminalization measure reduced simple cannabis possession to a civil penalty punishable by a maximum fine of $25.

Moving forwards, Democratic Governor Northam sees further market expansion. Back in November, he openly aired his supportive views on legalization. The Governor attributed his newfound support for adult-use cannabis legalization to the fact that people of color are unfairly targeted for cannabis-related crimes; one of many reasons why his views have changed.

During Northam’s annual address to lawmakers in January, the Governor said that a legal cannabis system would help Virginia to become a “more just state that works better for everyone.” 

He makes a good point, considering the fact that, based on a study conducted by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the average arrest rate for cannabis possession among black people was 3.5 times higher than the arrest rate for white individuals between the years 2010 and 2019.

“We’ve done the research, and we can do this the right way, leading with social equity, public health, and public safety,” Northam is quoted as saying last month.

By the fifth year of legal sales, a legal and taxed cannabis industry in Virginia could harvest between $154 and $308 million.