Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is getting pressure from both sides of the political aisle as he considers whether to add amendments to legislation that would legalize marijuana for adult recreational use.
The General Assembly approved the legislation, allowing retail sales of the drug to be legalized in 2024.
But some Democratic lawmakers have called on Northam to amend the bill and shift the legalization date to this year.
“I am encouraging my colleagues to join me in asking the governor to legalize marijuana on July 1, 2021,” Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas wrote on social media. “Kicking the can down the road has the effect of continued over policing people of color.”
A recent study by the legislature’s research and watchdog agency found that from 2010 to 2019, the average arrest rate of Black people for marijuana possession was 3.5 times higher than the arrest rate for white people. The study also found that Black people were convicted at a rate 3.9 times higher than white people.
The Virginia Senate had sought to legalize simple possession this year to immediately end punishments for people with small amounts of marijuana, but House Democrats argued that legalization without a legal market for marijuana could promote the growth of the black market.
Advocates agree that legalization should arrive sooner.
“Now is the time for Governor Northam to make some really important amendments,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, which advocates for marijuana law reform. “Virginians have been really clear on this issue. They support legalization and they’re ready for this now.”
On the other side, Northam received a letter from Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Good who told the governor that he should avoid signing the legislation altogether.
“Legalizing recreational use of marijuana, even if limited to adults, will likely expose more children to drug use at young impressionable ages,” Good wrote. “Marijuana is often the ‘gateway’ drug, and its legalization will increase experimentation with it and other drugs.”
Groups that opposed legalization entirely have said they are concerned that it could result in an increase in drug-impaired driving crashes.
While Northam has said he supports legalization, he has not said anything yet on whether he will add amendments to the legislation.
Lawmakers would have a chance to consider any potential amendments during the General Assembly’s “reconvened session” next month.
With the passage of the legislation, Virginia became the first Southern state to vote to legalize marijuana, joining 15 other states and the District of Columbia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.