What You Can - and Can’t - Do When Marijuana Becomes Legal This Summer
On July 1, adults 21 and older can begin legally using recreational marijuana in the commonwealth. They can even grow their own marijuana plants at home. But there are still a lot of rules Virginians have to follow if they want to stay on the right side of the law.
Experts were on hand during a Zoom panelWednesday night to answer some of the tricky legal questions around marijuana legalization. Vickie R. Williams-Cullins with OPN-Door Communications hosted the event.
Participants were Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, Sheba Williams, executive director of NOLEF Turns, Inc., Robert Poggenklass, an attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center and Ngiste Abebe , vice president of Public Policy at Columbia Care, a medical cannabis dispensary.
The panelists clarified what the new law says people in Virginia can and can’t do when the law takes effect.
For instance, while Virginians can carry up to an ounce of marijuana in public, it will still be illegal to use it in public or while in a vehicle. Carrying more than an ounce, but less than a pound, comes with a $25 civil penalty. Having more than a pound could still mean prison time and thousands of dollars in fines.
Sharing between legal adults
On July 1, it will be legal for adults to share up to an ounce of marijuana in private only. It will not be legal to consume, offer or share marijuana in public.
Growing your own
Adults 21 and older can cultivate up to four marijuana plants per household for personal use. It can be indoors or outdoors. But if it’s outside, it has to be shielded from public view. Virginians growing inside their homes must label their plants, keep them out of public view and out of range of anyone under the age of 21.
Rules for renters
Many renters will not be allowed to use marijuana at home, even once it becomes legal to do so.
“If it’s not your property then, of course, you’re subject to whatever the property owner enforces,” Pedini said.
Virginia Poverty Law Center and other groups who do housing justice work tried to include protections for renters in the marijuana bill but were not successful, Sheba Williams said.
“We really have to put some guidelines in place and be mindful of our neighbors and second hand smoke and how it impacts other people,” Williams said. "But the most important thing is the safety of the community and making sure that people who don’t want to be indulging or engaging in that aren’t impacted.”
Transporting marijuana and Virginians murky open container law
The ACLU of Virginia has offered this very clear advice:
“Never use marijuana in a car or vehicle. It’s illegal whether you’re the driver or a passenger.”
The organization also suggests not bringing it on the road at all. That’s because Virginia law is still somewhat unclear about what it means to have an “open container” of marijuana in a vehicle.
Pedini and others suggested that if you must transport marijuana, keep it in a locked box or sealed container in the trunk of your car.
Pretextual searches became illegal May 1 of this year. That means police officers can no longer use the smell of marijuana to search you.
“But use your brain. Be smart about protecting yourself because even though we’re saying these things are legal, it doesn’t mean that officers won’t still use that for people who don’t know their rights,” Williams said.
The law does not address how Virginians can access marijuana legally.
There will be no legal retail sales of marijuana outside of the medical program until next year. The regulations are still being developed and the majority of the legalization bill passed during the 2021 General Assembly Session still has to be passed again during the 2022 session. The Virginia Cannabis Control Authority will oversee the eventual commercial market.
“At first we’re going to try real, real hard to stop arresting people for possessing marijuana for personal use,” Pedini said. “If you are possessing with intent to distribute, those laws remain in effect until the CCA is stood up and we have new laws.”
Gifting schemes, where customers pay for some other product and receive a free “gift” of marijuana, will also be illegal on July 1.
Past criminal records
Individuals who are incarcerated now for marijuana offenses have to wait until at least 2022 for resentencing hearings. Last year after Virginia decriminalized simple possession of marijuana, Virginia State Police sealed all misdemeanor marijuana possession (simple possession) conviction records. On July 1 of this year, VSP will also begin sealing misdemeanor convictions of possession with intent to distribute. Sealing largely prevents the records from being disclosed.
Virginia also approved a measure to expunge some criminal records -- but it doesn't take effect until 2025 - a disappointment for many advocates.
“So, you have all these people out there who are hurting now who are needing housing, needing employment, needing education and the barriers are going to be there for another four years as the law is currently written,” Poggenklass said .
Marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I controlled substance by the federal government. It remains a crime to grow, sell, and/or use cannabis.