Virginia is First Southern State to Legalize Marijuana

Virginia became the 16th U.S. state to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana on Wednesday. Under the new law, adults ages 21 and over can possess an ounce or less of marijuana beginning on July 1 this year, rather than Jan. 1, 2024.

marijuana leaf
Credit: Rex Medlen

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, proposed moving up the date, arguing it would be a mistake to continue to penalize people for possessing a drug that would soon be legal. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, also a Democrat, broke a 20-20 vote tie in Virginia’s Senate to pass the bill. No Republicans supported the measure.

Democratic House of Delegates Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn hailed the plan, according to NPR. “Today, with the Governor’s amendments, we will have made tremendous progress in ending the targeting of Black and brown Virginians through selective enforcement of marijuana prohibition by this summer,” she said in a statement.

Republicans voiced a number of objections to what they characterized as an unwieldy, nearly 300-page bill. Several criticized measures that would grant licensing preferences to people and groups who’ve been affected by the war on drugs and make it easier for workers in the industry to unionize. Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment also questioned Northam’s motives.

“We have a governor who wants to contribute to the resurrection of his legacy,” Norment said, referring to the 2019 discovery of a racist photo in Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook.

The accelerated timeline creates an unusual situation for Virginia cannabis consumers. While it will be legal to grow up to four marijuana plants beginning July 1, it could be several years before the state begins licensing recreational marijuana retailers. And unlike other states, the law won’t allow the commonwealth’s existing medical dispensaries to begin selling to all adults immediately.

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