Opinion: Commentary: Update on Veto Session

Marijuana in small amounts to be legal in July; more ...

This past week, we returned to Richmond for Reconvened Session or Veto Session to consider Governor Northam’s amendments to the state budget and legislation passed during the session. The Governor vetoed no bills.

The bill that received the most attention was marijuana legalization. The bill that passed during the session created a new Virginia Cannabis Control Authority and a series of governing and advisory boards. During the regular session, there were major differences between the chambers. We eventually agreed on legislation that repealed civil penalties on adult possession of small amounts of marijuana effective Jan. 1, 2024.

After we adjourned, we continued our discussions and eventually Governor Northam’s proposed amendments that moved that date up to July 1, 2021. This was approved largely along party lines.

What this means is that after July 1 of this year, adults will be allowed to possess under one ounce of marijuana. Possession by persons under 21 will be illegal. Governor Northam also proposed a series of statutes to treat marijuana like to alcohol which were approved. Marijuana consumption in public places will be illegal and cannot be possessed on school property or in a school bus. No one can operate a vehicle requiring a commercial driver’s license with marijuana in their system. Open containers of marijuana in vehicles will be illegal. However, unlike alcohol, we did not pass legislation allowing parents to allow children to consume.

We also approved legislation allowing people to grow up to marijuana plants at home but only four per household. Homegrown marijuana must be grown out of sight, must be labelled and the owner must take measures to prevent access by juveniles.

The legislation also will seal all marijuana possession and misdemeanor distribution charges and convictions on July 1, 2025. All convictions for possession of paraphernalia and felony marijuana distribution (excluding distribution to juveniles and kingpins) will be eligible to petition for sealing in the discretion of a judge.

The Governor added money to the budget to enhance training for law enforcement officers in marijuana impairment and also education for juveniles regarding the dangers of marijuana consumption. We were not able to finalize legislation to create a recreational farming, manufacturing and retail system. The discussion over whether to allow “vertical” integration between marijuana growers, manufacturers, and retailers such as we currently have with alcohol will continue. We also must debate whether to allow “horizontal” integration between the hemp and medical industries and recreational marijuana industries. We also must finalize taxation, distribution of revenues, and social equity programs.

Governor Northam offered an amendment to place an emergency clause on my legislation to give the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors additional authority to protect River Farm under its historic zoning authority. It was approved by large margins.

The Governor also proposed a fix to my legislation to reform our laws regarding the sealing of criminal charges by giving the Virginia State Police the authority to allow the process to begin earlier than July 1, 2025 if software systems can be updated faster. We also approved appropriations for an independent investigation of a recent dispute an Investigator General Report the Parole Board. The investigation was requested by minority caucuses and will hopefully bring the dispute to a conclusion.

Governor Northam also proposed giving Prince William County’s local government control over the Virginia Health Department branch in the County. I did not support making this decision by governor’s amendment versus a publicly vetted bill. I have concerns about the uncoordinated nature of vaccine deployment in our two current independent health districts, and I wanted to see more vetting, discussion and planning before transferring control.

We will likely be going back into special session in June to appropriate several billion dollars Virginia will be receiving under the American Rescue Plan and elect seven new judges to the Court of Appeals of Virginia. We will be vetting and interviewing dozens of candidates over the next two months. There is only one judge on the Court of Appeals from Northern Virginia. We must fight for regional diversity on our statewide courts.

It is an honor to serve as your state senator.

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