Northam Amends Bill, Proposes Legalizing Marijuana By July

By Brian Carlton

March 31, 2021

Amendments would speed up timeline, make other changes

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RICHMOND-Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam doesn’t want to wait until 2024. He wants to see marijuana possession legalized this year. Northam released his amendments to SB 1406 and HB 2312 on Wednesday, detailing a list of changes he’d like to see. 

The original bills legalize simple possession on July 1, 2024. Northam’s amendment moves that up. Specifically, it would allow adults to legally possess up to one ounce of cannabis, without intent to distribute, on July 1 of this year. In a statement, Northam pointed to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission’s report, issued last November, as a reason why he felt strongly that the date needed to be moved up. 

The JLARC report found that law enforcement officers arrested Virginia’s Black residents three times more than white residents for simple possession. Simply “decriminalizing” simple possession last July didn’t do anything to cause those numbers to drop. As a result, Northam said it was time to speed up the process of legalization to solve the problem. 

So What Changes? 

Under Northam’s proposed amendments, some things become legal and others remain a crime. For example, Northam’s proposal would allow households to grow up to four marijuana plants, beginning on July 1 of this year. Now there are some restrictions to go along with that. You can’t just have marijuana growing out near the front porch. 

In order to grow at home, you have to make sure each plant is clearly labeled. They also have to be out of sight from public view and in a location where nobody under 21 can reach them. 

Northam’s amendments also speed up the timeline for expungement and sealing criminal records, when it comes to marijuana charges. That’s been an ongoing discussion for months, with the General Assembly’s bills waiting until 2025 to reform the system. Northam’s amendments change that to “as soon as state agencies are able to do so.” Now yes, this would mean a massive update to state computer systems, but as Northam points out, money for that project was set aside in the updated budget. 

He also adds some protections for workers in this new industry. The amendments would authorize Virginia’s Cannabis Control Authority to take action, if a marijuana company violated one of three rules. If the company threatened union organizing efforts, failed to pay the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s “prevailing wage” or labeled more than 10% of its employees as independent contractors, the CCA could revoke their business license. 

Where Is Marijuana Still Illegal? 

Some of the amendments just clarified a few points. For example, smoking marijuana would still be banned while driving. The same goes for when you’re driving a school bus and marijuana possession would still be illegal on all school grounds. 

Northam also set aside funding for a public awareness campaign, to remind people to use marijuana responsibly. The campaign would highlight the health and safety risks involved, as well as provide training for officers to recognize what’s labeled as “drugged drivers.” 

The amendments got support from state lawmakers on all sides Wednesday, with people saying they were needed. 

“These amendments provide needed support and training to law enforcement,” said State Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Stafford). “[They] address concerns I originally had about the legislation.” 

Stuart’s fellow Republican, State Sen. Jill Vogel, also endorsed the proposal. 

“It’s important that as we take our time to thoughtfully stand up this industry, we also provide clarity and don’t confuse Virginians by punishing them for something that will now be legal,” Vogel said. “These amendments do just that.”

Democrats meanwhile thanked Gov. Northam for listening to their requests.

“Governor Northam has listened carefully to each of our concerns and addressed them fully,” said State Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton). “In Virginia, we are legalizing marijuana in the right way.”

Her comments were echoed on the House side.

“Governor Northam’s amendments will stop the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws beginning this summer, while also focusing on public safety and educating our youth,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring. “This is a very important step for equity, and I’m grateful for the Governor’s leadership.”

Marijuana By The Numbers

If you legalize marijuana, tax revenue will grow between $154 and $257 million by the fifth year of sales. That’s according to the same JLARC study on marijuana legalization we referenced from 2020. Those projections are assuming a marijuana tax rate of 20%, with a local sales tax rate of 5.3%. 

If the Assembly reenacts it as written, the bill set the state-wide marijuana tax rate to 21%. It also gives localities the option to add another 3% in local taxes. 

The bill divides revenue from marijuana taxes into four categories. 25% of the revenue will go to the Department of Behavioral Health. The department will use this money to administer substance use disorder prevention and treatment programs. The bill allocates 5% of this revenue to public health programs. Under the bill, 40% of the revenue goes to pre-K programs for at-risk children ages three and four. Lastly, 30% of the revenue will support the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund. The fund will be used to support people impacted by criminalizing through grants, scholarships, and financial aid. 

What Happens Now?

Now that the governor’s amendments have been released, it’s time for state lawmakers to head back to Richmond. The General Assembly will vote on the amendments and decide to either adopt them or make changes.

That reconvened session is scheduled to start on April 7.

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].

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