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.”
[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