Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday signed a bill legalizing simple possession of marijuana beginning this summer, making it the first Southern state to do so and accelerating a revamp of cannabis laws that have disproportionately jailed Americans of color for nonviolent offenses.
The bill, signed a day after April 20 -- marijuana's unofficial holiday -- allows anyone in the state 21 or older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana beginning July 1. Adults can also grow up to four cannabis plants per household at home, though the plants must kept away from public view. The plants must be tagged with the owner's name and driver's license or identification number and note that they are being grown for personal use. The bill also "modifies several other criminal penalties related to marijuana, and imposes limits on dissemination of criminal history record information related to certain marijuana offenses."
The Virginia General Assembly passed the bill earlier this month after Northam sent the original measure back to the legislature with a series of revisions, including a proposal to accelerate the timeline of its enactment to July instead of January 1, 2024.
Northam, a Democrat, touted the legislation as a "milestone" for the commonwealth, calling it a step toward "building a more equitable and just Virginia and reforming our criminal justice system to make it more fair."
"What this really means is that people will no longer be arrested or face penalties for simple possession that follow them and affect their lives," he said during a news conference with advocates and state lawmakers that was streamed Wednesday on Facebook. "We know that marijuana laws in Virginia and throughout this country have been disproportionately enforced against communities of color and low-income Virginians."
According to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union in April 2020, Black Americans are three and a half times more likely than White Americans to be arrested for marijuana possession despite similar usage rates.
Marijuana legalization advocates have long touted the righting of past criminal justice wrongs, eliminating illegal market activity and generating additional tax revenue when they've pushed for overhauling state cannabis laws. Some Virginia Republicans opposed the bill, including Del. Chris Head, who called it a "train wreck" earlier this month.
Jenn Michelle Pedini, NORML development director and executive director of Virginia NORML, a nonprofit organization that had pushed for the legislation's passage, on Wednesday called the bill's signage "an extraordinary victory for cannabis justice" in the state.
More than a dozen states and Washington, DC, have voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Last week, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation legalizing recreational marijuana use among adults 21 and older and allowing for minor cannabis offenses to be expunged from criminal records.