Legalization is still a long way off, but the new General Assembly will likely lead to easing of marijuana restrictions.
Along with many policy changes in the newly Democratic General Assembly, the future of marijuana in Virginia appears to be inching closer to a friendly approach to the drug.
There has been a flurry of action in the New Year in Virginia related to marijuana. On January 2, the newly-elected prosecutors of Fairfax County and Arlington County said they would end the prosecution of adults possessing small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Two weeks ago, Gov. Ralph Northam announced legislation that would decriminalize marijuana in the state. Then just this past Sunday, Attorney General Mark Herring attended a Cannabis Summit where he voiced support for legalization.
While there is no way of knowing for sure if and when new legislation will be passed, there are indications that big changes are in store for Virginia’s legal approach to marijuana.
Perhaps the most significant policy shift in recent years came in 2017, when the General Assembly approved a new regulatory program for the production and sale of medical cannabis oils by five providers in each of the Health Service Areas. The dispensaries, set to open by mid-summer, will be required to grow all the marijuana they sell on-site.
Now that Democrats are in control of the General Assembly, many expect the government to go a step further and pass decriminalization measures. Northam’s proposal included replacing arrests for marijuana possession with a $50 civil penalty and clearing the records of people with prior convictions.
While decriminalization of marijuana looks likely, outright legalization likely faces a tougher road. In an interview with CBS 6, Herring said he hoped the Democratic majority would put the commonwealth “on a path to make a concrete plan for how Virginia could move to legal and regulated adult use.”
There has been some movement in that direction already. Del. Lee Carter’s (D-Manassas) pre-filed a bill for the 2020 session, which would decriminalize marijuana and lay the groundwork to grow cannabis legally in the state. It appears legalization is unlikely that it will pass this session, however, as not all Democrats are on board. At a December summit in Richmond on marijuana, lawmakers said they think that could take a few years.
If the Virginia government does legalize marijuana, they would be the 12th state to do so. They would also have the support of the majority of Virginians. The University of Mary Washington releases a study in October showing that 61% of Virginians now support legalizations.