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As Northam considers marijuana bill, some Virginians push for legalization now

Groups like the ACLU of Virginia want Gov. Ralph Northam to amend a bill legalizing marijuana so that it would happen in 2021 and not 2024.

RICHMOND, Va. — A bill to legalize marijuana in Virginia is still waiting for Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature.

Earlier this year, Virginia lawmakers approved a measure that would legalize marijuana for adult recreational use in 2024. Retail sales would also begin at that time.

Northam has previously said he supports making Virginia the first state in the South to legalize marijuana. The governor has cited the need for racial and social equity as part of his reasoning for supporting the proposal.

A Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) report found that Black Virginians were arrested and convicted for marijuana use at almost four times the rate of white Virginians prior to the decriminalization of marijuana in 2020.

However, Northam has recently come under pressure to amend the bill lawmakers sent to his office.

The ACLU of Virginia, Marijuana Justice, and New Virginia Majority, and more than 20 other groups recently sent Northam a letter demanding that he legalize possession of less than one ounce and reduce the charge for possession of one ounce to five pounds to a civil penalty on July 1, 2021.

READ: "Joint Letter to Gov. Northam: Legalize Marijuana Right in 2021"

The groups say that since the decriminalization of marijuana July 1, 2020, Black Virginians still disproportionally represent most people charged for the illegal possession of marijuana in the commonwealth.

The ACLU of Virginia says 52% of the people arrested in the commonwealth for illegal possession since last summer have been Black. African-Americans only represent 20% of Virginia’s population, according to the census.

“While we technically decriminalized marijuana last session, we have still seen the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana have its greatest, most damaging impact on Black and brown communities,” said Jenny Glass, director of advocacy for the ACLU of Virginia.

Glass said that is part of the reason the date for legalization should be moved up to the summer of 2021.

“Repeal prohibition and don't prolong this,” she said. “Don't wait any longer for that to continue and to continue arresting and citing people for marijuana, for something that's going to be legal.”

Some state lawmakers also share the ACLU’s concerns.

In late February, Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan told colleagues in Richmond she believed Northam should amend the marijuana bill to allow for the legalization of simple possession earlier.

“We've already made the decision that simple possession should be repealed,” she said. “[But] we could have done that today and ended the disproportionate fines on communities of color.”

On Monday, Northam’s office responded to a request for comment regarding his plans moving forward with the marijuana bill.

“Governor Northam continues to have productive conversations with legislators and stakeholders on potential amendments to the marijuana legalization bill,” his Senior Communications Advisor Alena Yarmosky said. “The Governor is grateful to the General Assembly for their hard work on this important issue, and he looks forward to continuing to improve this legislation. His top priority is making sure we legalize marijuana in an equitable way.”

Yarmosky says the governor has until 11:59 pm, on March 31, to sign the bill. Under Virginia law, if the bill is not signed it would become law as it is written now after that date.

If Northam chooses to provide amendments to the bill, it would go back to the General Assembly for consideration at Reconvened Session on April 7.

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