Does Virginia’s New Law Legalize Marijuana? Well, Yes and No.

By Brian Carlton

July 1, 2021

Yes, the new law took effect July 1 in Virginia. But it doesn’t fully legalize marijuana use.

RICHMOND-Is marijuana legal today in Virginia? That’s been an argument since March and led to confusion across the Commonwealth. We’ve already seen people light up in public, including at some of the protests in Richmond and Virginia Beach, believing that to be legal. But it’s not that simple. 

Here’s what happened at midnight on July 1. First, any adult 21 and older gained the legal right to possess up to one ounce of marijuana. Let’s be clear about what that means: it’s still not legal to smoke it in public. That part of the law didn’t change. 

Also as of July 1, adults 21 and older can now personally grow up to four marijuana plants at home. You can’t just set up a residence for this. It has to be at your primary home, the place where you sleep. Even then, you can’t just have marijuana growing near the front porch. In order to grow at home, each plant has to be clearly labeled. They also have to be out of sight from public view and in a location where nobody under 21 can reach them.

Finally, adults can share up to an ounce of marijuana in private. You just can’t get paid for it. And you can’t share or sell marijuana in public. That means any type of marijuana or cannabis products, including even the seeds. Yes, selling marijuana plant seeds is illegal, even though you’re allowed to grow up to four plants. And yes, that did seem as odd to the Dogwood staff as it likely does to each of you. 

Here’s What The New Law Doesn’t Do

Beyond smoking in public, there’s a few other misconceptions when it comes to the new law. It’s still illegal for anyone under 21 to be caught with marijuana or to smoke it. It’s also still banned on all school grounds and school buses. That means no one is allowed to bring it on campus, regardless of age. And yes, that includes all schools across the state. 

Smoking marijuana is still banned in vehicles. It doesn’t matter if you’re a driver or passenger. If you’re caught smoking, that could mean a citation and a hefty fine. The same goes for anyone caught transporting it in an open container. 

Now the new law includes several other things besides what we’ve highlighted here. However, none of them took effect at midnight. Protections for workers in the marijuana industry, for example, are still not official. The same goes for rules about the legal market, how marijuana tax revenue would be used and how small businesses would be licensed to sell marijuana products. In order for all of those to take effect, the Assembly will have to vote on them a second time next year. 

Let’s Talk Numbers

So if the Assembly does legalize marijuana a second time next year, what will that mean financially for Virginia? The same JLARC study we mentioned earlier shows tax revenue will grow between $154 and $257 million by the fifth year of sales. Those projections are assuming a marijuana tax rate of 20%, with a local sales tax rate of 5.3%. 

If the Assembly reenacts it as written, the law set the state-wide marijuana tax rate to 21%. It also gives localities the option to add another 3% in local taxes. 

The law divides revenue from marijuana taxes into four categories. If the current language is approved again next year, 25% of the revenue will go to the Department of Behavioral Health. The department will use this money to administer substance use disorder prevention and treatment programs. The bill allocates 5% of this revenue to public health programs. Under the bill, 40% of the revenue goes to pre-K programs for at-risk children ages three and four. Lastly, 30% of the revenue will support the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund. The fund will be used to support people impacted by criminalizing through grants, scholarships, and financial aid.

Lawmakers Admit They Didn’t Fully Legalize Marijuana

When Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill into law, state lawmakers acknowledged this didn’t fully legalize marijuana. 

“The bill we passed today moves the ball forward, but let’s be clear: this is not marijuana legalization,” said State Sen. Jennifer McClellan at the time. “It sets up a framework to get us on a path to legalization in 2024. [But] we have a long way to go on enacting marijuana legalization in an equitable way that redresses the harms of prohibition on Black and Brown communities.”

One of the issues McClellan is referring to stems from a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission report. The JLARC report found that law enforcement officers arrested Virginia’s Black residents three times more than white residents for simple possession. Simply “decriminalizing” simple possession last July didn’t do anything to cause those numbers to drop. That’s why Gov. Northam and the Assembly sped up the process to make at least possession legal. Originally, it wasn’t going to be legal until 2024.

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