Virginia lawmakers approved a bill on Saturday that would legalize the sale and recreational use of marijuana — but not until 2024.
The historic move makes Virginia the first Southern state to vote to legalize marijuana, joining 15 other states and the District of Columbia. The legislation now goes to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who supports legalization, for his signature.
“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, the chief sponsor of the Senate bill, told the Associated Press.
Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn applauded her colleagues in both chambers for passing the measure.
“The House and Senate took a strong step in legalizing the sale and possession of Marijuana here in the Commonwealth,” said Filler-Corn on Twitter. “This legislation will make our criminal justice system fairer and help end the targeting of black and brown communities over the possession of cannabis.”
Still, some Democrats like state Sen. Jennifer McClellan called on Northam to amend the bill, including legalizing marijuana sooner.
“We still have a long way to go to ensure we address the disproportionate impact marijuana prohibition has had on Black and brown communities,” McClellan tweeted. She called on Gov. Northam to amend the bill so that simple possession would become legal this year.
Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said the governor “looks forward to continuing to improve this legislation.”
“There’s still a lot of work ahead, but this bill will help to reinvest in our communities and reduce inequities in our criminal justice system,” Yarmosky told NBC Washington.
Under the legislation as passed, possession of up to an ounce (28.3 grams) of marijuana will become legal beginning Jan. 1, 2024. At the same time, sales will begin and regulations will go into effect to control the marijuana marketplace in Virginia.
The 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 continue to promote the growth of the black market.
Lawmakers last year decriminalized marijuana, making simple possession a civil penalty that can be punished by a fine of no more than $25.
Despite the bill’s major reforms, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said the new legislation does not go far enough to “break the chains of marijuana prohibition.”
“The Virginia General Assembly failed to legalize marijuana for racial justice. Lawmakers paid lip service to the communities that have suffered decades of harm caused by the racist War on Drugs with legislation that falls short of equitable reform and delays justice,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said.
The Associated Press contributed.