RICHMOND, Va. (April 1, 2021) – Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wants the state to legalize marijuana this year, and yesterday he sent two bills back to the legislature with recommended amendments that would speed up the legalization process.

Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) and Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) introduced Senate Bill 1406 (SB1406) on Jan. 13. Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) along with a large coalition of Democrats introduced the House companion, House Bill 2312 (HB2312), the following week. The legislation would legalize marijuana for adult use, despite ongoing federal cannabis prohibition.

Last month, the House passed compromise bills 48-43 and the Senate approved the measures 20-19.

Under the proposed law as passed by the legislature, adults 21 and older could purchase and possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and cultivate up to four plants without penalty. The legislation would also create a regulatory scheme for the commercial cultivation and retail sale of cannabis.  The proposed law would establish an independent agency called the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority to establish a regulatory structure for the adult-use market. The bill includes provisions to create a process for the expungement of records relating to past marijuana crimes. Under the compromise reached by a joint legislative committee, legalization would not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2024. It would also be required to pass a second vote by the assembly next year.

On March 31, Northam returned the SB1406/HB2312 to the legislature with recommended amendments. Most significantly, the governor’s changes would make possession of cannabis by adults 21 and older legal on July 1, 2021, rather than in 2024 as the measure currently stipulates.

Northam’s changes would also speed up the expungement process, allowing for the expungement and sealing of criminal records on marijuana to begin as soon as state agencies are able to do so. The amendment would simplify the criteria for when records can be sealed.

Northam also proposed changes to the home cultivation provisions that would require plants to be labeled with identification information, kept out of sight from public view, and kept out of range of individuals under the age of 21.

NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini, also serves as the Executive Director of Virginia NORML. She offered support for the governor’s proposals.

“We’re pleased Governor Northam agrees with NORML that the legalization of personal possession and personal cultivation ought to happen as soon as possible. Virginians have been very clear that they are ready for legalization this year, sending over 7,100 emails in support of these measures this session.”

EFFECT ON FEDERAL PROHIBITION

Virginia established a viable medical marijuana program last year and also decriminalized marijuana possession despite ongoing federal prohibition.

Under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) passed in 1970, the federal government maintains complete prohibition of marijuana. Of course, the federal government lacks any constitutional authority to ban or regulate cannabis within the borders of a state, despite the opinion of the politically connected lawyers on the Supreme Court. If you doubt this, ask yourself why it took a constitutional amendment to institute federal alcohol prohibition.

The legalization of marijuana for personal use in Virginia would take the next step and removes another layer of laws prohibiting the possession and use of marijuana in the state even though federal prohibition would remain in effect. This is significant because FBI statistics show that law enforcement makes approximately 99 of 100 marijuana arrests under state, not federal law. When states stop enforcing marijuana laws, they sweep away most of the basis for 99 percent of marijuana arrests.

Furthermore, figures indicate it would take 40 percent of the DEA’s yearly-budget just to investigate and raid all of the dispensaries in Los Angeles – a single city in a single state. That doesn’t include the cost of prosecution. The lesson? The feds lack the resources to enforce marijuana prohibition without state assistance.

A GROWING MOVEMENT

Virginia is one of a growing number of states simply ignoring federal prohibition and nullifying it in practice.

Colorado, Washington state, Oregon and Alaska were the first states to legalize recreational cannabis, and California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts joined them after ballot initiatives in favor of legalization passed in November 2016. Michigan followed suit when voters legalized cannabis for general use in 2018. Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana through a legislative act in 2018. Illinois followed suit in 2019. During the November election, Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and New Jersey legalized marijuana for recreational use.

With 36 states including allowing cannabis for medical use, and 15 legalizing for adult recreational use, the feds find themselves in a position where they simply can’t enforce prohibition anymore.

The lesson here is pretty straightforward. When enough people say, ‘No!’ to the federal government, and enough states pass laws backing those people up, there’s not much the feds can do to shove their so-called laws, regulations or mandates down our throats.

The push to legalize marijuana for personal use in Virginia demonstrates another important strategic reality. Once a state legalizes marijuana – even if only in a very limited way for medical purposes – it tends to eventually expand. As the state tears down some barriers, markets develop and demand grows. That creates pressure to further relax state law. These new laws represent a further erosion of unconstitutional federal marijuana prohibition.

WHAT’S NEXT

The legislature will take up Northam’s proposals during a special session that will begin April 7. It can accept some or all of the proposed amendments, or reject them completely. The bill will then go back to the governor for final approval or veto.


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