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Gov. Ralph Northam at a press conference in October. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday he plans to propose legislation legalizing marijuana when the General Assembly convenes in January, setting the state on a path to become the first in the South to allow recreational use of the drug.

“We are going to move forward with legalizing marijuana in Virginia,” Northam said. “I support that and am committed to doing it the right way.”

Northam, a physician who says he’s never used the drug, cautioned “it’s not going to happen overnight,” saying he envisions an 18 to 24 month timetable for the state to establish and regulate the new marketplace.

His administration has been studying the issue and many details remain unresolved, but Northam said he intends to emphasize public health protections and social equity issues as the state moves forward.

“Marijuana laws have been based originally in discrimination and undoing these harms means things like social equity licenses, access to capital, community reinvestment and sealing or expunging people’s prior records,” he said.

Lawmakers in the House of Delegates say a legalization bill would likely pass the chamber. In the Senate, Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said last week he gave it “slightly better than 50-50” odds.

Northam’s comments came on the same day as state analysts presented a sprawling study of the potential impacts of marijuana legalization in Virginia and things lawmakers should take into account as they discuss it.

The Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission study found that legalization could generate more than $300 million per year in tax revenues by the fifth year of operations and, combined with decriminalization, could reduce marijuana arrests by 84 percent. Legalization could also create more than 11,000 jobs, the study found, but most would be lower-paying positions in retail, cultivation, packaging and security.

If Virginia chooses to legalize adult use of marijuana, it would likely take at least two years to put a regulatory structure in place and begin licensing companies to operate in the state, according to the study.

While the study found that very few people are jailed solely for marijuana possession, JLARC staffers found that 120,000 Virginians might benefit if the General Assembly paired legalization with a one-time expungement of pot charges that wouldn’t be crimes anymore. More than half of those people would be Black Virginians, who are arrested for marijuana at a much higher rate than White Virginians, according to the study.

The study outlined numerous steps Virginia policymakers could take to promote social equity, including giving preferential consideration for minority entrepreneurs and workers from communities that have been disproportionately affected by drug prohibition. Preventing a vertically integrated industry dominated by large, well-established marijuana companies, the study suggested, could also promote opportunities for Virginia-based small businesses.

“As new states legalize, your homegrown businesses, pardon the pun, are going to be competing against these businesses that are big, multi-state operators,” said JLARC legislative analyst Mark Gribbin.

The study did not make a recommendation that Virginia should or shouldn’t legalize marijuana.

“The mission of this particular study was not to decide whether Virginia should legalize marijuana,” said Del. Ken Plum, D-Reston, the chairman of JLARC. “The question was: If Virginia decided to legalize marjiuna, what should be the considerations?”

Another important element lawmakers would have to work out is what level of control local governments should have over allowing legal marijuana sales in their communities. Virginia law allows localities to ban liquor sales, and lawmakers could choose to do the same with marijuana.

“It is still a controversial issue,” Gribbin said. “And even people  who support legalization for criminal justice reasons may not be supportive of a commercial market.”

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