April 21 (UPI) -- Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday signed a bill legalizing simple marijuana possession for adults.
The law allows anyone in the state 21 or older to possess 1 ounce of marijuana and grow up to four cannabis plants per household at their home beginning July 1, making Virginia the first southern state to allow possession of recreational marijuana.
The measure was approved by the Virginia General Assembly earlier this month after Northam returned it with a series of revisions, including moving the date to legalize possession up to this summer from Jan. 1, 2024, when the state is set to begin permitting recreational marijuana sales.
It also calls for the automatic expungement of past misdemeanor marijuana convictions to begin as soon as possible.
Northam hailed the legislation as a milestone during a news conference on Wednesday, saying it will be a step toward "building a more equitable and just Virginia and reforming our criminal justice system to make it more fair."
"What this really means is that people will no longer be arrested or face penalties for simple possession that follow them and affect their lives," Northam said. "We know that marijuana laws in Virginia and throughout the country have been disproportionately enforced against communities of color."
The state House approved the measure by a 53-44 vote, while Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was forced to break a 20-20 tie in the Senate.
Democrats praised the bill for correcting injustices and allowing the state to prepare for the transition to legal marijuana sales, while some Republicans said the early date for legalizing possession does not give law enforcement enough time to prepare.
Marijuana is fully legal in 15 states and medically legal and/or decriminalized in 36 states.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday that he is working along with Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J. and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on legislation to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level within the next year.