The Virginia General Assembly approved bills to legalize cannabis in the state ahead of a mid-session deadline to approve such a measure.

This comes little more than a month since Gov. Ralph Northam and prominent lawmakers outlined their intent to lead the way on marijuana legalization in the South, having decriminalized cannabis last year. Following that announcement, the now-approved bills were heard and amended in multiple committees and subcommittees before the House voted 55-42 in favor of its bill, while the Senate passed its final version in a 23-15 vote.

The House legalization bill now makes its way to the Senate, with the Senate version heading in the opposite direction. It’s widely expected that a bicameral conference committee will be convened to iron out differences between the bills and combine them into a single proposal the legislature can get behind before sending it to Gov. Northam for approval. The issues likely to be debated include the regulatory structure of the industry, social equity license criteria, local jurisdiction powers, home grow limits and vertical integration rules for cannabis companies. So long as no unforeseen complications arise, marijuana could be legal in Virginia by the summer with legal sales to follow in 2024.

Under the current proposals, buying and possessing up to one ounce of marijuana would be legal for adults 21 and older, as would cultivation of up to four plants. The measure include provisions for automatic expungements for past cannabis convictions under certain conditions, while tax revenues would partly go toward pre-K education, at-risk youth programs and public health initiatives.

Speaking ahead of the vote in Virginia’s upper chamber, Sen. Adam Ebbin (D) described the bill as “a forward-thinking, deliberative approach to create a regulated adult use market for cannabis, which will reform our criminal justice system and begin the long process of undoing the harms of prohibition.”

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D), who sponsored the bill, tweeted the measure would “provide long overdue justice for so many marginalized communities in Virginia.”

Some House and Senate members spoke about the supposed dangers of marijuana legalization, such as increased use among youth and impaired driving with others responding by focusing on the bill’s capacity to promote social equity and reduce persisting racial disparities in Virginia’s arrest rates. The Commonwealth hit a ten year peak in marijuana-related arrests in 2018 which, in part, prompted lawmakers and State Attorney General Mark Herring to call for action on long overdue cannabis reform.

“Virginians have been clear in their support for this issue and Governor Northam agrees, it is time to legalize the responsible use of cannabis by adults in the Commonwealth,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML. “And while today’s historic votes seek to put this majority public opinion into practice, there still remains much work to be done by NORML and others to ensure that Virginia gets it right and implements legislation that is expeditious and just.”

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