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Unfinished marijuana legislation has hazy future with Virginia’s political shift in power

Published: Dec. 23, 2021 at 12:25 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 23, 2021 at 9:25 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Virginia has seen a recent shift in power, with Republicans taking control of the governor’s mansion and now holding a majority in the House of Delegates. This raises a flurry of questions about the future of marijuana laws that are still yet to be hashed out in the Commonwealth.

Many marijuana advocates say they’re uncertain how unpassed legislation will fare, given the GOP is likely to add resistance to some Democratic initiatives.

Simple possession of cannabis is now legal in Virginia, as of 2021. That could be pretty tough to change, but there are unfinished laws regarding retail marijuana sales, set to start in 2024, and resentencing for people currently serving time for certain cannabis offenses - particularly offenses that are now legal.

Virginia’s incoming Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin sent out a tweet last summer, after a post by gubernatorial challenger Terry McAuliffe, claiming that Youngkin would likely try to make marijuana illegal again.

“False. Glenn Youngkin will not seek to repeal it,” stated the post from Youngkin’s official team.

Virginia’s decriminalization legislation now allows simple possession of cannabis and the ability for a person to grow a small number of their own cannabis plants. That said, Virginia Republicans and Democrats will have to find common ground in the 2022 General Assembly legislative session on the logistics for the retail sale industry of marijuana.

A lot of that legislation still has to be figured out and passed as a law. For example, Democrats are pushing for Black Virginians to receive some priority in getting marijuana business licenses. Marijuana advocates say that’s now more hard-pressed to happen.

Black Virginians have historically been arrested for simple possession of marijuana at a significantly higher rate than non-minority Virginians, even though both use it at about the same rate, according to studies cited by Governor Northam.

“Making atonement for past harms was pushed heavily to get this bill over the hump,” said Sheba Williams, the executive director of Nolef Turns, referring to the decriminalization bill signed by Northam. Nolef Turns is a non-profit group that helps people navigate the criminal justice system, and reentering society after serving time.

“The majority of the social equity pieces (of future Virginia marijuana legislation) are subject to re-enactment, which means they have to be voted again in 2022 to become law,” continued Williams.

Another aspect that was left out of Virginia’s marijuana decriminalization bill is resentencing. A provision on the table would have allowed inmates serving time for certain cannabis offenses (particularly ones that are now legal), to be re-sentenced by a judge. But that language never made it into the final legislation signed by Northam.

“That means people who have cannabis convictions right now, sit in jails and prisons,” said Williams.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the sealing of Virginia State Police records for some marijuana offenses, like simple marijuana possession and misdemeanor marijuana possession with intent to distribute. That’s already been done, according to marijuana advocates like Virginia NORML development director JM Pedini. Pedini says we can anticipate more movement in that area, during the upcoming session.

“There was legislation that directed a deeper record-sealing expungement of these misdemeanor records, as well as the ability to petition for felony expungements. That’s still pending,” said Pedini. “You might recall, it was really difficult to reach compromise amongst Democrats in the 2021 session for the legalization measure. And reaching a compromise now between the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House of Delegates will be all that more difficult.”

Another likely debate in the General Assembly will be whether to speed up the legalization of the retail sale of marijuana before 2024, according to our partners at Virginia Mercury. Some fear legalizing the use of marijuana but having a long period of time before it can be sold, which could embolden the black market.

Copyright 2021 WWBT. All rights reserved.

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