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Three Key Points on Virginia’s New Marijuana Law

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Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax broke a 20-20 tie to pass a bill legalizing marijuana today. He's pictured, left, speaking with State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell, during the Senate reconvene session at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, April 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Virginia’s Democrat-controlled General Assembly passed a bill legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana on Wednesday.

Under Virginia’s new law, people aged 21 and over can possess an ounce or less of marijuana beginning on July 1, 2021. Gov. Ralph Northam’s original timeline called for a Jan. 1, 2023 start to legalization, which the legislature bumped to Jan. 1, 2024. He later amended the date to July 1 of this year under pressure from criminal justice advocates.

The proposal passed in a mostly party-line vote. A key Senate Democratic holdout on the plan -- Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) -- supported legalization but wanted to see it paired with an end to mandatory minimum sentences. He opted to vote for the plan after he said he secured commitments from his caucus and the governor’s office to address ending mandatory minimum sentences. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax broke a 20-20 tie to pass the bill.

Here’s what you need to know about the new law.

1. It won’t be easy to buy legal weed

While it will be legal to grow up to four marijuana plants beginning July 1, it could take the state 18-24 months for the state to set up a licensing scheme for recreational marijuana retailers. And unlike other states, the law won’t allow the commonwealth’s existing medical dispensaries to immediately begin selling to all adults.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, called legalization “an incredible victory” but said their group would continue to push to allow retail sales to begin sooner.   

“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,” Pedini said in a statement. “Such a delay will only exacerbate the divide for equity applicants and embolden illicit activity.”

In the meantime, the state’s four active medical marijuana processors are the only place to buy legal cannabis for patients who’ve gone through the state’s registration program. Those facilities currently only sell processed products like edibles and vape cartridges, but they will begin selling flower -- the smokable stuff in joints -- beginning July 1 under a separate law. Virginia NORML offers a guide on registering for the program.

2. Lawmakers prioritized ‘social equity’

Northam and other Democrats pitched marijuana legalization as a way to address the historic harms of the War on Drugs. One state study found Black Virginians were 3.5 more times more likely to be arrested for marijuana charges compared to white people. Those trends persisted even after Virginia reduced penalties for possession to a $25 civil fine. 

Northam’s proposal sets aside 30% of funds to go to communities impacted by the War on Drugs, compared to 70% in New Jersey, whose governor signed a legalization bill last month. Another 40% of Virginia’s revenues will go toward early childhood education, 25% will go toward substance abuse treatment and prevention, with the remainder funding public health programs.

The bill specifies a category of “social equity” applicants, such as people who’ve been charged with marijauana-related offenses or who graduated from historically black colleges and universities. Those entrepreneurs will be given preference when the state grants licensing.

Mike Thomas, a 36 year-old Black hemp cultivator who served jail time for marijuana possession, said those entrepreneurs deserved special attention. Thomas said he looked forward to offering his own line of organic, craft cannabis. 

“It's a happy feeling that I don't have to see my children or any young kids or anyone else grow up and have to be punished and penalized for something that's not a drug,” Thomas said.

3. It’s not quite a done deal

While the July 1 date is firm, much of the nearly 300-page bill’s regulatory framework is still tentative; Virginia lawmakers will have to approve them again during their general session next year. 

Some criminal justice advocates say lawmakers should also revisit language that creates a penalty for driving with an “open container” of marijuana. In the absence of retail sales, some members of law enforcement say it’s not clear what a container of marijuana will be.  

Sen. Scott Surovell stressed that the new law does not create a cannabis free-for-all. Smoking in public, on school property, or under the age of 21 is still illegal.

“This is not going to generate some ganja fest at Jiffy Lube Pavilion out in the parking lot,” Surovell said.

There’s big money on the line. One state report estimated upwards of $1 billion per year in annual sales once the market is up and running.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Northam initially proposed legalizing marijuana beginning in 2024. It's been updated to reflect his initial proposal, which targeted a 2023 start date. 

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.