RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Virginia lawmakers were expected to vote Saturday on a bill that would legalize marijuana for adult recreational use in 2024, but negotiations were running down to the wire.
The bill is a top priority for Democrats, who framed legalization as a necessary step to end the disparate treatment of people of color under current marijuana laws.
Talks between Democrats in the House and Senate have been tense in recent days as the two chambers tried to work out significant differences between their versions of the legislation.
Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, said Saturday that a compromise has been agreed to in principle by both chambers. Under the agreement, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana will become legal in 2024, at the same time retail sales would begin and regulations would go into effect to control the marijuana marketplace in Virginia.
Also included in the deal is something the Senate insisted on: a reenactment clause that will allow the General Assembly to vote again next year on the regulatory framework, Morrissey said. He said the Senate gave up its quest to get a statewide voter referendum on the ballot, a move House members opposed.
Del. Lamont Babgy, D-Henrico, chairman of the Black Legislative Caucus and a member of the conference committee handling negotiations, said he is optimistic that both chambers will approve the bill Saturday.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Marijuana Justice and several other racial justice advocacy groups, however, urged lawmakers to vote against the compromise, which they called a "symbolic" legalization bill. The groups are calling for simple possession of marijuana to be legalized beginning on July 1, not three years from now, as spelled out in the compromise legislation.
"This bill does not advance the cause of equal justice or racial justice in Virginia. It is the product of a closed-door legislative process that has prioritized the interests of recreational marijuana smokers over people and communities of color," the groups said in a statement.
Groups that oppose legalization entirely have said they are concerned that it could result in an increase in drug-impaired driving crashes and the use of marijuana among youth.
If signed into law, Virginia would become the first Southern state and the 16th state in the nation to legalize small amounts of marijuana.
Lawmakers have been planning to finish most of the work for the year on Saturday, but technically adjourn on Monday for procedural reasons.