Virginia lawmakers approved a bill Saturday that would legalize the sale and recreational use of marijuana — but not until 2024.
The move makes Virginia the first Southern state to vote to legalize recreational 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.
"We are on the path to an equitable law allowing for adults to not be penalized for using cannabis," Democratic state Sen. Adam Ebbin, the chief sponsor of the Senate bill, said Sunday.
Democratic state House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn applauded her colleagues for passing the measure.
"The House and Senate took a strong step in legalizing the sale and possession of Marijuana here in the Commonwealth," Filler-Corn said 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 to legalize simple possession this year, among other changes.
"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.
A spokesperson, Alena Yarmosky, said Northam "looks forward to continuing to improve this legislation."
"Virginia just took a major step towards legalizing marijuana in our Commonwealth. 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 said Sunday.
Under the legislation as passed, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana would become legal beginning Jan. 1, 2024. At the same time, sales would begin and regulations would 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 could continue to promote the growth of the black market.
Lawmakers decriminalized recreational marijuana last year, 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 it 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," it said.