Virginia Accelerated Its Legalization Plans. What’s Next?
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Virginia Accelerated Its Legalization Plans. What’s Next?

This summer, the Old Dominion is poised to make history as the first Southern state in America to legalize cannabis. But questions remain about the new laws governing the incoming industry.

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April 9, 2021

This week, cannabis advocates in Virginia notched another victory – after pressure from organizations like the ACLU, NORML, and Marijuana Justice, lawmakers agreed on Gov. Ralph Northam’s amendment to speed up the legalization of cannabis possession to July 1. Under the bill’s original timeline, possession laws wouldn’t have been changed until 2024, which remains Virginia’s target date for starting retail sales.

“We did what we do and organized, got Virginians’ voices up, and told the Governor, ‘Hey, before you sign this, we need some amendments to show some urgency,’” said Chelsea Wise, founder of the advocacy group Virginia Marijuana Justice. “It’s a huge win for us to speed this up three years.”

Votes on the amendment were split 20-20 along party lines, with Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax casting the deciding vote. Republicans had argued that the bill was incomplete, believing that more time was needed to study the issue and determine how best to enact full legalization. State Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment called the amendments “horribly flawed,” and implied that Northam was only speeding it up “to contribute to the resurrection of his legacy,” a reference to the stir created in 2019 when the governor admitted to appearing in a medical school yearbook photo depicting one man wearing blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

Other changes in the bill

State Republicans were also unhappy about a provision added that would make it easier for cannabis workers to unionize. The new language gives the state’s incoming Cannabis Control Authority the power to strip licenses from any cannabis business that doesn’t remain neutral while its workers attempt to unionize. 

But supporters of the updated bill argue that legalizing the possession of up to an ounce of cannabis and growing up to four plants at home will benefit the communities hit hardest by prohibition. Even after the state decriminalized cannabis last year, Black Virginians were four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses, according to local reporting

“It is a huge day for equity in the Commonwealth,” said Majority Leader Charniele Herring, who sponsored the original legalization bill in the House. “Virginia is now the first state in the South to legalize recreational marijuana use, and I am so proud to have been able to carry this monumental legislation.”

Wise agreed. “We’re really saying, ‘Hey, in the South, we have to do things a bit differently’... It was people power that really made the governor change,” she added. “This is a huge win, particularly for Black organizers that didn’t come with lobbyists in back rooms.”

Smoking in public and selling any form of cannabis will remain against the law. Possession by those under 21 will also remain illegal, punishable by a $25 fine and a requirement to enter into a substance abuse treatment and education program. 

What’s next for Virginia cannabis?

Wise told Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary that more work is needed to fix other problems in the final bill’s language. Possession of any amount of cannabis on K-12 public school grounds during school hours will be a Class 2 misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail. 

“This was a small step, but as we move forward we’re going to continue to celebrate,” said Wise. “If I could have my wish, I would say that before the governor signs, we should remove some of the penalties on our youth that are feeding the school-to-prison pipeline. States like New Jersey gave us great models to push youth towards programs and services and not the criminal justice system.”

Driving under the influence of cannabis remains illegal – Virginia plans to spend about $1 million to train certain police officers on how to spot whether or not a driver is impaired. In a vehicle, possessing cannabis in anything other than the original manufacturer-sealed container is enough to presume use by a driver. Previous misdemeanor convictions for simple possession or possession with intent to distribute will be sealed when the new law goes into effect on July 1 and automatically expunged no later than 2025.

Attention now turns to the formation of the state Cannabis Control Authority, which is expected to convene for the first time this summer.