Virginia Becomes First Southern State To Legalize Recreational Marijuana

Virginia lawmakers have made recreational marijuana legal in their state. Residents can possess an ounce or less of marijuana starting July 1. Dispensaries will start recreational cannabis sales in 2024.

In the 11th hour, lawmakers decided to move up the section making possession of less than an ounce legal. Previously, the law made possession legal in 2024.

The decision by the Democratic-controlled legislature – no Republicans voted for the measure – makes Virginia the first state in the South to legalize marijuana. The state is also the third state in 2021 to do so through legislative action after New York and New Mexico.

“This is an incredible victory for Virginia. Legalization will bring an end to the thousands of low-level marijuana infractions occurring annually in the Commonwealth — ending a discriminatory practice that far too often targets Virginians who are young, poor, and people of color,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, Executive Director of Virginia NORML.

An Emphasis on Social Justice

As the vote approached, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam urged lawmakers to not only pass the bill but also to amend it. Rather than making people wait until 2024 to be able to legally possess small amounts of cannabis, he asked that they move it to July 2021.

He specifically said the state needed to correct the over policing of black Virginians in possession crimes.

“Today, Virginia can make history as the first state in the South to legalize the simple possession of marijuana—and restore justice to those harmed by decades of over criminalization,” Northam said just before the vote. “I urge the General Assembly to adopt my amendments and make this happen.”

Lawmakers ended up doing as Northam asked. As legalization has spread, the calls for social justice as part of the legalization process have increased. Politicians in New York, New Jersey and New Mexico – as well as Illinois before them – have all called for legalization as a way of stopping the high number of arrests in poor communities.

Republican United In Opposition

In what has increasingly become the case on almost every issue, especially surrounding recreational marijuana, Republicans stood unified in opposition. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, had to break a 20-20 tie in Virginia’s Senate to get the bill passed.

Republican called the bill unwieldy and objected to the inclusion of measures that allow people and groups impacted the most by the War on Drugs to get cannabis licensing preference and make it easier for workers in the industry to form unions.

But Democrats praised lawmakers for voting to legalize. House of Delegates Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said: “Today, with the Governor’s amendments, we will have made tremendous progress in ending the targeting of black and brown Virginians through selective enforcement of marijuana prohibition by this summer.”

In addition to allowing Virginia residents to carry cannabis, the bill also will allow them to grow up to four plants in their home starting July 1. However, the law does not allow existing medical marijuana dispensaries to sell recreational marijuana immediately. State leaders expect recreational sales will not begin until 2024.

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