On Thursday, a Senate panel endorsed legalizing the possession of recreational marijuana in Virginia by this summer, though legal sales could take much longer.
The change was suggested as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee continued to debate a lengthy and complex bill in which few provisions are final.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) introduced the amendment in light of recent marijuana decriminalization, which took effect less than six months ago.
“If we know we’re going down the road of legalizing, it seems to me that the repeal of simple possession at a minimum should take effect July 1 of this year,” McClellan said. “Otherwise, all we’re doing is setting up a situation where people are paying civil fines for something that is going to be completely legal eventually.”
As the bill stands, individuals 21 and older could have up to an ounce legally in Virginia. Any amount between an ounce and five pounds would result in a $25 fine, which would be paid like a traffic ticket, according to Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth).
While lawmakers may bump up the legalization of simple possession, Virginians may not be able to legally purchase pot until 2024. That’s because the Senate is backing the creation of a new, independent agency to oversee the budding industry.
The choice is expected to extend Gov. Ralph Northam’s original timeline by at least six months. The Administration initially recommended regulation by Virginia ABC.
“I think we’re taking a responsible course. This is something that won’t happen overnight,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), one of the bill’s chief sponsors.
On Thursday, the House General Laws Committee continued to debate the regulatory framework of marijuana legalization. Decisions about allowing localities to opt out, banning vertical integration, prohibiting advertising and more are expected to be made on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Senate is shifting its focus to criminal penalties in a legal market. Conversations on how to punish the illegal sale of pot, as well as the use of marijuana in public and in a moving vehicle have barely scratched the surface.
“We need to make sure we have a clear understanding of when an officer can arrest you, what is needed to prosecute, what is under the influence and we haven’t even begun that debate,” said Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover).
On Friday, senators are expected to discuss how to treat underage possession. Currently, the bill requires those under 21 to pay a fine and attend substance abuse classes, with penalties increasing for subsequent offenses.
“We need to get that kid into some help, into some counseling–not jail,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath).
Senators on both sides of the aisle agree that penalties for marijuana possession should be as close to the alcohol code as possible but some adjustments may need to be made.
“Right now, the way the bill is drafted, the penalties for possessing marijuana as a juvenile are substantially less than a beer that is unopened in the back of your car that your parents or your friend left. That does not seem to be just,” McDougle said. “At the very least they should be equalized.”
Moving forward, there will also be further discussion on expungement. Currently, the Senate bill allows for the automatic removal of past misdemeanor marijuana offenses from a person’s record. It creates a petition-based expungement for felony possession with intent to distribute.
Another area up for debate is whether or not people should be allowed to grow weed at home.
For now, the legislation allows each household to have two mature and two immature plants. The plants cannot be visible to the public and must be kept out of the reach of children.
Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said this section needs a lot more work. “These are issues we have to tease out to make sure we don’t create a bunch of unintended criminals out of this situation,” he said.
Weeks into a short session, Surovell fears the General Assembly may not be able to fully flush out all of these issues in time.
“A lot of us are concerned about whether or not this bill is too complex to knock out in a 45 day session. We’re starting to have discussions about whether or not we need more time to look at this or if there’s parts we can look at now and save the rest for later,” Surovell said.