Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wants to bring the scheduled date to legalize marijuana possession and cultivation for personal use in the state forward by nearly three years to July 1, 2021.

The marijuana legalization bill approved by the legislature earlier this year is not due to take effect until January 1, 2024. The far-off start date was a compromise made in order to secure enough votes for the bill to pass. But certain marijuana advocacy groups believe this is too long to wait if lawmakers are serious about addressing racial disparities in marijuana arrests, even under Virginia’s move to decriminalize cannabis last year.

In the meantime, provisions of the bill require lawmakers to take steps to establish a commercial marijuana market in the state. As well as issuing marijuana business licenses and developing the rules and regulations of the industry, this includes the creation of an independent agency – the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority – to oversee the process and govern the legal market.

The proposed accelerated start date is one of several amendments put forward by the governor to the cannabis legalization bill. Other proposals to the existing legislation made by Gov. Northam concern public health and worker’s protections under a legal cannabis industry, as well as speeding up expungements of marijuana-related convictions. If accepted by the legislature, Virginians 21 and older would be allowed to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to four plants per household from the summer, while the timeline for state regulators to set up legal cannabis sales in the state would remain the same.

“Our Commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way,” said Governor Northam in a statement. “Virginia will become the 16th state to legalize marijuana—and these changes will ensure we do it with a focus on public safety, public health, and social justice. I am grateful to the advocates and legislators for their dedicated work on this important issue, and I look forward to this legislation passing next month.”

Having initially been skeptical of legalizing cannabis, reforming Virginia’s marijuana laws has become a key policy objective for Gov. Northam since taking office. This came partly in response to marijuana arrests hitting a ten year high in Virginia in 2018, while the state has some of the starkest racial disparities in cannabis law enforcement in the country.

Executive Director of Virginia NORML, Jenn Michelle Pedini, welcomed the move to legalize possession and cultivation from the summer but called for lawmakers to include legal retail sales in the accelerated start date as well.

“In the interest of public and consumer safety, Virginians 21 and older should be able to purchase retail cannabis products at the already operational [medical] dispensaries in 2021, not in 2024,” Pedini said. “Such a delay will only exacerbate the divide for equity applicants and embolden illicit activity.”

In recent weeks, Gov. Northam also approved several medical marijuana bills to allow dispensaries to sell cannabis flower, allow for medical marijuana telehealth consultations, and afford greater worker protections to medical cannabis patients for their off-hours use.

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