RICHMOND, Virginia (AP) – Virginia became the first southern state to legalize marijuana on Wednesday when lawmakers approved changes proposed by Governor Ralph Northam to a bill that would allow adults to own and grow small amounts from July.

Northam sent the bill back to lawmakers, which had changed radically from the version they sent him in February. The changes, which lawmakers agreed on Wednesday, would speed up the legalization timeline by about three years, long before retail sales would begin, a move welcomed by supporters of racial justice.

“It is time our state legalized marijuana. The changes ensure that while we do the complicated work of building a commercial marketplace, we are not delaying immediate reforms that will make our Commonwealth more equitable for all Virginians, ”said Charniele Herring, chairman of the house majority, and urged her colleagues to agree the governor’s changes.

Democrats said the bill was an urgent matter, a necessary step to end what state figures show is unequal treatment of people of color under current marijuana laws.

With the Northam amendments, House 53-44 was cleared with two abstentions during a one-day session to complete the legislation of the year. In the Senate, lawmakers were bogged down between 20 and 20, and Democratic Governor Justin Fairfax broke his tie and voted to approve the changes.

The final version of the legislation would allow adults 21 and older to legally own up to one ounce (28.3 grams) of cannabis with no intention of distributing it from July 1. It would also allow the cultivation of up to four plants per household from July 1. Public use of the drug is prohibited.

“This is not going to trigger a ganja feast at the Jiffy Lube Pavilion in the parking lot because it smokes in public. Just as you can’t drink in public, you can’t smoke in public, ”said Democratic Senator Scott Surovell.

It will be years before legal retail sales follow legalized ownership. The bill outlines the complex process of creating a new government agency to oversee the marijuana market. The start of sales and the regulations come into effect on January 1, 2024.

Many parts of the draft law dealing with the legal framework will have to be approved again by the legislature next year. The belongings and cultivation items will not.

Republicans, who overwhelmingly opposed the bill when the General Assembly first passed, railed against the latest version and cited several reasons.

GOP Del. Chris Head called the bill “a train wreck”.

“The hard-fought compromise that barely made it from this chamber to the Senate has just been thrown out. And why is that It’s because some activists want marijuana to be legalized, and they want it to be legalized now. The consequences are damned, ”he said.

Some Republicans have also had issues with labor regulations in the new draft bill, particularly a change that says the government can revoke or suspend licenses granted under the new bill if an employer has refused to be “neutral about union organizing efforts to stay by employees. “

During the legislature, the Senate attempted to legalize simple ownership from July, but House Democrats argued that without a legal market for marijuana, legalization could fuel black market growth. The bill passed in February would not have legalized simple ownership until 2024.

Herring said on Wednesday that home growing would allow Virgins to legally purchase cannabis while the retail market is set up.

Many of the other amendments that the legislature dealt with on Wednesday were minor or technical in nature and were more easily enacted. For example, both houses quickly decided to optimize a comprehensive voting measure that proponents say will protect and expand access to the ballot box. And they approved minor changes to a measure to improve the depressed unemployment system.

Both chambers also signed a Northam budget change that will fund an external investigation into a small part of a larger controversy over the state parole board. Republicans criticized the governor’s proposal for being far less substantive than necessary, saying it would allow the government to keep unflattering results a secret.

The legislature did not have to override a veto this year. Northam responded to 552 bills from the 2021 meeting and, according to its office, did not veto it.

The Senate met at a science museum that was the chamber’s venue during the pandemic to allow for greater social distancing.

That chamber also welcomed its newest member, Republican Senator Travis Hackworth, who won a special election last month to fill the seat of the late Senator Ben Chafin. Chafin died in January after contracting COVID-19.

The House carried out its work practically as in the regular meeting.

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