RICHMOND – Bills to legalize marijuana, abolish the death penalty, and eliminate mandatory minimums passed the House and Senate yesterday. Meanwhile, a new variant of the coronavirus has reached Virginia.
Marijuana Legalization Bills Pass House and Senate
Both chambers of the General Assembly cast votes to pass two different bills to legalize marijuana in Virginia yesterday. Now they’ll work to find a compromise between similar but not identical versions of legalization.
Both bills would legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for people 21 years old or older. Under both bills, the penalty for possessing more than an ounce of marijuana would be a $25 fine. The House and Senate versions both allow people 21 years old or older to cultivate up to two marijuana plants and two immature plants for personal use. Both also create an independent agency to oversee and regulate the legal marijuana industry in the Commonwealth. This agency will be called the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority.
Under both bills, the legal marijuana market will not open in the Commonwealth until 2024.
The revenue that taxes from legalization generates will also go to the same places under both bills. 40% to pre-Kindergarten programs for at-risk three-year-olds and four-year-olds; 30% to a fund designed to invest in communities disproportionately impacted by criminalization, 25% to substance use disorder prevention and treatment programs; and 5% to public health programs.
Weeding Through the Differences Between Bills
Though they are the same in many fundamental ways, the bills differ in some significant ones too.
For example, Senate Bill 1406, proposed by Del. Adam Ebbin (D- Alexandria) allows localities to opt out of permitting retail marijuana stores within their boundaries. House Bill 2312, proposed by Del. Charniele L. Herring (D – Alexandria), allows localities to decide the hours and locations that retail marijuana stores can operate in. However, it does not give localities the option to opt out of permitting them.
The Senate version passed the Senate yesterday by a vote of 23-15. The same day, Herring’s version of the bill was referred by the House to the Senate Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services by a vote of 55-42.
Bills To Abolish The Death Penalty Pass Both Chambers
Just in time for Crossover Day, members of both chambers cast votes to approve bills abolishing the death penalty.
Under both bills, a person convicted of a Class 1 felony will face the possibility of life in prison instead of the death penalty.
Once again, the House and Senate will have to find a middle ground between two slightly different versions of abolition. For instance, Sen. Scott Surovell’s (D – Mount Vernon) proposed legislation, Senate Bill 1165, allows for the possibility of parole for people who receive a sentence of life in prison. This possibility of parole does not extend to people with convictions related to killing a law enforcement officer.
Under House Bill 2263, proposed by Del. Michael Mullin (D- Newport News), people with Class 1 felony convictions would not be eligible for parole.
Mullin’s bill passed the House 57-41 yesterday. The Senate version passed the Senate 21-17 and has now been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary.
More Contagious COVID Variant Reaches Virginia
A variant of the coronavirus originally observed in South Africa has reached the Commonwealth. During a press conference Friday, Governor Ralph Northam told Virginians that the variant, known as B.1.351, is a cause for concern.
“Now is not the time to relax,” Northam said.
According to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), this variant of the virus is associated with increased person-to-person transmission. At this time, there is no evidence that infections with this variant cause more severe disease. To date, the B.1.351 variant has been identified in only two other U.S. states, South Carolina and Maryland.
For a review of Northam’s press conference yesterday, check out this Twitter thread by our reporter Amie Knowles.
House and Senate Approve Bills to Abolish Mandatory Minimums
Bills to abolish certain mandatory minimum sentences from the Virginia Code also passed the House and Senate floors yesterday. But while the titles of both bills claim they eliminate mandatory minimums, those eliminations have limitations.
House Bill 2331, also proposed by Mullins, abolishes mandatory minimums primarily in cases related to substance or alcohol abuse.
Alternatively, Senate Bill 1443, proposed by Sen. John Edwards (D – Roanoke), abolishes mandatory minimum sentences in more extreme cases including malicious bodily injury, involuntary manslaughter, assault and battery.
These bills both passed their respective chambers Friday. The House voted 21-17 to report Mullins’ bill to the Senate. With a vote of 58-42, the Senate sent Edward’s bills to the House.