Virginia’s legislature advanced a final version of a marijuana legalization bill to Gov. Ralph Northam for his approval, but cannabis reform advocates are concerned at the extended timeline for the measure to take effect.

After each chamber of Virginia’s General Assembly passed bills to legalize cannabis, a bicameral conference committee was established to piece together a single proposal. While the final bill would legalize marijuana possession, use, commercial sales and cultivation for adults 21 and older, the committee set a January 1, 2024 enactment date for the law change which some Democratic lawmakers believe should be brought forward. Until then, low-level cannabis possession would remain a misdemeanor.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice Virginia, said the General Assembly’s proposed start date for legal cannabis is driven by commercial interests rather than ending an unjust policy.

“I am extremely disappointed that we legislated business before justice. The governor said that this bill was supposed to prioritize racial equity. But it’s clear that it only prioritized a cannabis profit industry,” she said.

Jenn Michell Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, called for Gov. Northam to amend the existing bill and enact marijuana legalization in Virginia sooner.

“Now is the time for Governor Northam to make some really important amendments … we hope to expedite the timeline with which Virginia adults will no longer face either criminal or civil penalties for the personal possession and cultivation of cannabis,” Pedini said.

Gov. Northam embraced full cannabis legalization and urged lawmakers to ensure Virginia leads the way on the reform in the South following the publication of a legislative commission report recommending the potential rules and regulations of a legal marijuana market. More recently, Northam said marijuana laws have been “based originally in discrimination” and that there therefore must be social equity provisions in legislation to legalize cannabis in order to help undo those harms.

In its report, the legislative commission noted the stark racial disparities in the enforcement of Virginia’s marijuana laws. Between 2010 and 2019, Black people were 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people, and 3.9 times more likely to be convicted for this offense than white people.

The compromise bill agreed by Virginia lawmakers would establish the Cannabis Control Authority as the state body responsible for developing, implementing and regulating the rules governing the legal cannabis industry. Much of the remainder of the approved bill outlines the marijuana industry’s regulatory and market framework, as well as its social equity and restorative justice provisions. These aspects of the reform face a second review and vote by the General Assembly, which is penciled in for next year.

That is, unless Gov. Northam chooses to play his hand and try to force an earlier start date. He has until the end of March to decide whether to prioritize the preferences of marijuana industry regulators and operatives, or take swifter action to address the racial disparities in the enforcement of the state’s cannabis laws.