In a bold move that many did not see coming from the South, Virginia just officially passed legal, recreational cannabis.
The bill passed thanks to support from the Democratic governor and legislature. Now, small amounts of cannabis are officially legalized in the state. Those 21 and up can have an ounce or less of cannabis starting July 1. Initially, the state was looking at 2024 for an end to prohibition, but Governor Ralph Northam felt it could be hypocritical and problematic to keep criminalizing something that would be legal in the future.
Victory Over Opposition In Virginia
Unlike many states, Virginia did not receive bipartisan support for this measure. In 2019, an attempt to legalize and decriminalize cannabis failed in the state. This year, however, Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax had to break a 20-20 tie, as Democrats and Republicans in the Virginia Senate were split down the middle.
Republicans claimed that the bill was too long and involved at 300 pages, and some were concerned that licensing preference would be given to marginalized folks who have been more affected by the war on drugs than others. Others felt this was just a move to make the governor look good, or worried that the bill provides language allowing cannabis workers to unionize. However, despite all these objections, it passed by a hair margin.
“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,” Democratic House of Delegates Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn said about the new law.
Now that Virginia is fast-tracking legalization, cannabis consumers are excited to be able to grow up to four plants and possess up to an ounce starting in July, but they still may have to wait a while before the state moves ahead with licensing recreational retailers and growers. As of now, the only legal dispensaries in Virginia are all still medical.
“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,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML. “Such a delay will only exacerbate the divide for equity applicants and embolden illicit activity.”
Northam and his supporters are hoping that legalizing cannabis can help stop the harm done to communities of color by the war on drugs. Black Virginians are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis charges than white residents, according to NPR, and this is still true now that cannabis users only receive a fine instead of jail time.
Some advocates also think that lawmakers need to revisit the part of the bill that penalizes driving with an open container, as there are currently no recreational sales in the state, and cannabis dispensaries are not yet recreationally legal; therefore there is no clear regulation as to what a closed vs. open container looks like.
When the industry finally does start granting licenses, social equity applicants will be in luck, as anyone who has been charged with cannabis-related offenses or graduated from historically Black colleges will be given first dibs at getting a recreational dispensary license.
As of this writing, Virginia has made history as the first-ever Southern state to fully legalize cannabis.