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Advocates Want Northam To Speed Up Marijuana Legalization in Virginia


Governor Ralph Northam is considering a bill that would legalize marijuana in Virginia.  His decision on this bill could end up being one of the most significant of his term in office.

Advocates for legalizing marijuana are lobbying the governor, who has the power to amend the bill lawmakers sent him. Instead of legalizing possession of marijuana in 2024, which is in the version of the legislation the General Assembly put on his desk, they want him to legalize it as soon as possible -- this summer.

"I am extremely disappointed that we legislated business before justice," says Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice Virginia. She says it's a mistake to tie the date of legalization with the launch of commercial sales.  "The governor said that this bill was supposed to prioritize racial equity. But it's clear that it only prioritized a cannabis profit industry."

Ashna Khanna at the ACLU of Virginia says this is Governor Northam's chance to finally take action on his talking points.  "The governor has been talking about reparative justice for the communities and individuals harmed by the war on drugs and racially biased policing, and so a way to make that lip service into reality would be to enact these changes now and stopping the harm of marijuana prohibition."

The marijuana prohibition will continue for the rest of this year and next year and the year after that under the version of the bill lawmakers sent the governor. That's why Delegate Cia Price, a Democrat from Newport News, says she could not vote for it.  "Even the thought of business before justice is hard to stomach knowing that some of my constituents are in jail right now and more may be sent to jail while we are establishing a regulatory authority for the business pieces."

One of the leading voices for separating the date of legalization and the date of commercial sales is Jenn Michelle Pedini of Virginia NORML, who says the governor has an opportunity to speed up the timeline.  "He certainly does have the power to make that or any other recommended amendments. However, the administration is the most ardent supporter of keeping those two dates connected," Pedini argues.

Senator Adam Ebbin introduced the governor's version of the bill when the session started in January. The Democrat from Alexandria says legalizing possession without establishing a way to legally buy and sell marijuana would create problems.  "There's no legal marketplace. It would just be the illicit market," Ebbin notes. "We want to create a marketplace that has products that have been tested and not have additives and make sure that the people we're selling to are  ID'd to make sure they're 21 and older. That sort of thing."

That's why he worked with House Majority Leader Charniele Herring to craft a compromise bill.  "This is better than nothing at all," according to Herring. "What's not progressive is to have sat on our hands and do nothing. So at least we have a date in stone. We at least are standing up the authority and starting to promulgate regulations, and so it is a product that we can work with."

The governor has until the end of this month to make a decision, one that could end up being one of the most significant and lasting decisions of his term: Wait until 2024 so the new Cannabis Control Authority can create a marketplace or take action now that will help address racial disparities in Virginia,

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.