RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Virginia House of Delegates voted Saturday to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use, but not until 2024, when retail sales would also begin.
The legislation was still awaiting action by the Senate early Saturday evening.
The bill is a top priority for Democrats, who framed legalization as a necessary step to end the disparate treatment of people of color under current marijuana laws.
If signed into law, Virginia would become the first Southern state and the 16th state in the nation to legalize small amounts of marijuana. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has said he supports legalization.
Talks between Democrats in the House and Senate have been tense in recent days as the two chambers tried to work out significant differences between their versions of the legislation.
Under the compromise bill approved by the House, possession of up to an ounce (28.3 grams) of marijuana will become legal on Jan. 1, 2024, at the same time retail sales would begin and regulations would go into effect to control the marijuana marketplace in Virginia.
Also included in the bill is something the Senate insisted on: a reenactment clause that will require a second vote from the General Assembly next year, but only on the regulatory framework and criminal penalties for several offenses, including underage use and public consumption of marijuana. A second vote will not be required on legalization.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Marijuana Justice and several other racial justice advocacy groups, however, urged lawmakers to vote against the compromise, which they called a “symbolic” legalization bill. The groups are calling for simple possession of marijuana to be legalized beginning on July 1, not three years from now, as spelled out in the compromise legislation.
“This bill does not advance the cause of equal justice or racial justice in Virginia. It is the product of a closed-door legislative process that has prioritized the interests of recreational marijuana smokers over people and communities of color," the groups said in a statement.
Groups that oppose legalization entirely have said they are concerned that it could result in an increase in drug-impaired driving crashes and the use of marijuana among youth.
Lawmakers have been planning to finish most of the work for the year on Saturday, but technically adjourn on Monday for procedural reasons.