Virginia lawmakers approved a bill on Saturday that will legalize recreational marijuana in 2024. The compromise bill that delays retail sales of the drug for three years turns Virginia into the first Southern state to vote to legalize marijuana for adults, joining 15 other states and the District of Columbia. The bill still has to be signed by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who has been vocal about his support for marijuana legalization. “It’s been a lot of work to get here, but I would say that we’re on the path to an equitable law allowing responsible adults to use cannabis,” State Sen. Adam Ebbin told the Associated Press.
The House passed the legalization measure 48-43 while the Senate approved it 20-19. The bill was approved without a single Republican vote in either chamber. The bill, which would legalize possession of an ounce of marijuana or less by those 21 or older, calls for the creation of an independent agency to regulate the marijuana market. But lawmakers “punted,” as the Richmond Times-Dispatch puts it, several key decision on how the market would be regulated and the new criminal penalties for underage possession and unregulated sales.
The bill was so contentious that seven Democrats in the House and one in the Senate didn’t support it. Several Democrats said that waiting until 2024 to legalize possession and waiting until next year to make key decisions meant the measure gives short shrift to communities of color that are disproportionately affected by criminalization. A particular concern is that Democrats may no longer control both chambers of the state legislature, notes the Washington Post. So even as Democrats broadly celebrated the bill’s passage, several also said they hoped Northam would amend the legislation and send lawmakers a more complete bill that could be considered later this year. “Virginia just took a major step towards legalizing marijuana in our commonwealth,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said. “Governor Northam is grateful to the General Assembly for their hard work, and looks forward to continuing to improve this legislation.”