Marijuana will be legal north of the NC border July 1. Here’s what is and isn’t permitted under the new Virginia law.

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The Virginia General Assembly approved legislation Wednesday that will make marijuana legal on July 1.

The votes make Virginia the 16th state to legalize the drug and the first in the South to take the step, though retail sales won’t begin until Jan. 1, 2024.

“The time has come for our state to legalize marijuana,” said House Majority Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, who sponsored the bill, arguing the revised legislation ensures “that while we’re doing the complicated work of standing up a commercial market, we aren’t delaying immediate reforms that will make our commonwealth more equitable for all Virginians.”

The product of months of negotiation and last-minute amendments, the final legislation is complex and, in some key areas, ambiguous about what will and won’t be allowed.

[Editor’s note: In North Carolina where even medical marijuana remains illegal, WRAL.com reports there is renewed momentum in the state legislature for change.]

New laws, new penalties

The final legislation makes possession of up to an ounce of marijuana legal for people 21 and older beginning July 1. Adults caught with more than an ounce but less than a pound will face a $25 fine. And adults caught with more than a pound can be charged with a felony punishable by between one and 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

And while sales of the drug are illegal, the legislation permits gifting up to an ounce of the drug to any adult. (The provision explicitly prohibits transactions that have become common in Washington, D.C., where companies sell legal products at high prices that are delivered with what is described as a free gift of marijuana.)

People under the age of 21 caught with the drug face a $25 fine, but would also be required to enter a substance abuse treatment and education program.

Also illegal under the legislation: consuming the drug in public or offering it to people in public, as a gift or otherwise. First offenses are also punishable by a $25 fine, a second offense would add mandatory drug treatment and a third offense would constitute a Class 4 misdemeanor. And possession on the grounds of a public K-12 school while it’s open would constitute a Class 2 misdemeanor.

“This is not going to generate some ganja fest at Jiffy Lube pavilion out in the parking lot, because that is smoking in public,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. “Because just like you can’t drink in public, you can’t smoke in public under this.”

Open containers and cars

In an effort to address the difficulty of pursuing driving-under-the-influence charges, which unlike alcohol can’t be proven with breath or blood tests, the legislation also creates a presumption that a person has consumed marijuana if an “open container” is found in the passenger area of a vehicle.

But the legislation defines an open container as “any vessel containing marijuana except the originally sealed manufacturer’s container.”

With retail sales delayed until 2024, what does that mean for people transporting a legal amount of marijuana in a ziplock bag or other common container? Read more

Virginia governor unveils proposal to begin legal marijuana sales in 2023

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Retail sales of recreational marijuana would begin in Virginia on Jan. 1, 2023, under legislation authored by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, which in addition to ending the state’s prohibition on the drug would expunge many past criminal convictions and create a state fund to help people arrested for marijuana crimes start legal businesses.

Northam came out in favor of legalization late last year and his bill, first made public Wednesday, represents a starting point for what’s expected to be a long debate during the legislative session that begins this week.

“Marijuana prohibition has historically been based in discrimination and the impact of criminalization laws have disproportionately harmed minorities in low income communities as a result,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who is carrying the legislation in the Senate with Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria. “We’re focused on undoing those harms.”

Timeline

When Northam announced his support for legalization, he said he did not plan to rush the process, citing the experience of regulators in other states. True to his word, his legislation lays out a two-year timetable in which officials would begin drafting regulations and issuing licenses to marijuana businesses before retail sales would begin in 2023.

Until then, most of the state’s current laws governing the drug would remain in place and the drug, while currently decriminalized, would remain illegal and subject to existing criminal and civil penalties.

The decision is likely to disappoint criminal justice advocates, who have argued for an immediate end to the state’s prohibition, enforcement of which has disproportionately targeted Black Virginians.

Likewise, operators of Virginia’s tightly-controlled medical cannabis dispensaries, have been lobbying for permission to begin recreational sales this year to serve as a stop gap while regulators establish rules and begin a broader licensing process.

However, legislative analysts who studied the issue last year recommended against that approach, arguing early access to the retail market would give medical producers an unfair competitive advantage and, in any case, would be unlikely to meet anticipated demand for the drug.

Taxes and oversight

Northam proposes handing regulatory control of the new marketplace to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, which would be renamed the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Control Authority.

But unlike the state’s monopoly on the sales of liquor, in which sales are restricted to state-run retail stores, the authority’s role in the marijuana industry would be limited to developing and enforcing regulations and licensing producers, processers and retailers. Read more