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It's official. The state of Virginia has become the 16th state to legalize cannabis. Originally, lawmakers planned to allow adults 21 years of age and over to possess and grow weed starting January 1, 2024. However, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam proposed moving up the legalization timeline to allow adults to possess and grow cannabis starting on July 1, 2021.

What Is and Is Not Legal?

This new bill makes Virginia the first state in the South to legalize the simple possession of cannabis. The state’s House of Delegates and Senate approved the governor’s proposal with a razor-thin margin.

Starting on July 1, 2021, the following will be legal for adults aged 21 and older:

Possession Limit: Up to 1 ounce of cannabis

Home cultivation: Up to 4 plants

Gifting: Up to 1 ounce to any adult

Possessing more than the one-ounce limit and less than a pound can earn you a $25 fine. Possessing more than a pound can be charged with a felony punishable by 1 to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to $250,000.

In terms of home cultivation, each plant must be tagged with the growers name, driver’s license or state identification number, and a note that says it's being grown for personal use. Plants must also be not visible from a public street or be accessible to minors.

Growing between 5 and 10 plants can earn you a $250 fine. Growing more than 50 plants is punishable with a felony charge.

Retail sales would still have to wait until regulations go into effect on January 1, 2024.

Virginia lawmakers must still meet during their general session in 2022 to re-approve the regulatory framework of the bill.

Close Call

Governor Northam has been a strong proponent of reforming the Virginia cannabis law. In February 2021, lawmakers sent amendments to his desk to legalize recreational cannabis. Late in March, the governor submitted his revisions the both chambers:

The House and Senate passed these amendments by the following majorities:

  • House: 53-44
  • Senate: 21-20

In the Senate, Democratic Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax broke the tie.

After the initial votes, both chambers passed each other’s proposals to effectively move up the legalization date and pass other amendments without any further approval from the governor.

Democratic House of Delegates Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said of the decision: “Today, with the Governor's amendments, we will have made tremendous progress in ending the targeting of Black and brown Virginians through selective enforcement of marijuana prohibition by this summer”

Social Equity

A major part of the push for the bill by the governor was his insistence on repairing the damage caused by the war on drugs. One study found that Black Virginians were 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis crimes compared with white people. It also found that they were more likely to be convicted at a rate of 3.9 times higher than white people.

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Even after the state lowered penalties for possession to a $25 fine, a disproportionate amount of Black people were still being charged.

The new law allows for the automatic sealing of past misdemeanor cannabis convictions. It also creates a petition-based process that allows individuals with more serious cannabis convictions to clear their records.

30% of the revenue from cannabis would be directed to communities most affected by the war on drugs to the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund. Funds would go to scholarships, job placement services, workforce development, and low- or no-interest loans for those wanting to start a cannabis business.

The bill would also give preference in licensing to those affected by the war on drugs. Virginians who have been convicted of a cannabis-related charge or who have a family member who has been convicted, or live in an area that is disproportionately affected by the war on drugs would get preferential treatment for licensing for any license type.

Public Health Education and Enforcement

The governor's substitute bills will direct funding to public health education and law enforcement services including:

  • Public Health Education: $1 million to educate the youth about the health risks of cannabis.
  • Law Enforcement: $1 million to increase and improve training law enforcement to “recognize and prevent drugged driving.”

Employee Rights

In a win for employee rights, an amendment passed would give regulators authority to revoke a business license if an establishment interferes with attempts to organize a union.

In addition, license revocation could happen if a company “fails to pay a prevailing wage as defined by the United States Department of Labor” or have more than 10% of employees listed as independent contractors.

Fighting for More Reform

Racial justice advocates have been at the forefront fighting for speedy and efficient legalization from the start. The ACLU of Virginia and Marijuana Justice were extremely vocal against the legislature’s decision to delay legislation until 2024.

Advocates celebrated the recent victory but were still left wanting more. Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini stated:

“In the interest of public and consumer safety, Virginians 21 and older should be able to purchase retail cannabis products at the already operational dispensaries in 2021, not in 2024. Such a delay will only exacerbate the divide for equity applicants and embolden illicit activity.”

Members of the Cannabis Equity Coalition of Virginia argued for at least 70% of tax revenues to be directed to the reinvestment fund.

Public Favors Legalization

These recent changes in the law accurately reflect current public support for legalization. A recent February 2021 poll from the Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Civic Leadership found that two-thirds (68%) of Virginian adults supported recreational legalization. Only a slight majority (51%) of Republican-registered voters supports this.

Northam Approves Additional Reforms

In addition to the recent legislation, Governor Northam had recently approved several amendments to strengthen reform efforts and protect cannabis patients.

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Early in March, Governor Northam approved legislation that would allow retailers to dispense botanical medical cannabis. Previously, license cultivators were required to process cannabis into oils and tinctures. Now, medical cannabis patients will be able to purchase products made of cannabis oil or botanical cannabis as early as September 2021.

In addition, the amendments would make telehealth improvements passed after COVID-19 permanent, and give patients in residential facilities increased access to medical cannabis.

In late March, the governor signed House Bill 1862 which gives employment protections for medical cannabis patients. It would prohibit employers from firing, disciplining, or discriminating against employees who use medical cannabis off the clock.

All of these measures take effect July 1, 2021.

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