RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed legislation over the weekend that decriminalizes simple possession of marijuana in Virginia, a legislative priority pushed by Democrats and backed by the governor ahead of the General Assembly session.

Under the new law, which will go into effect on July 1, those caught with the drug would instead pay a $25 civil penalty. The legislation also makes way for a group to study and release a report on the impact of legalizing pot in Virginia.

Less than a week before this year’s session convened, Northam announced his support for criminal justice reform measures, including marijuana decriminalization, that would help Virginia take “a bold step.”

Two bills, one introduced by Virginia House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) and the other from Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), were passed in each chamber with bipartisan support in February. Ebbin told 8News before the session began that he was “very optimistic” that his legislation would make it to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.

Critics of Virginia’s decriminalization effort complained that the bills from the House and Senate didn’t go far enough. Herring said her bill “is an important first step in combating the racial disparities in the Virginia criminal system.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia raised concerns over Herring’s bill, arguing it would fail to take away “a racist policing tool,” that input from impacted communities was not taken into consideration and that it punishes “youth more harshly than adults.” A 2013 report from the ACLU states that the use of marijuana is roughly equal among black people and white people, however black Americans are more than three times as likely to be arrested for possession of the drug.

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