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Legal Review: Virginia Updates Marijuana Laws

Virginia has now taken its place as the 17th state in the United States to legalize possession and home growth of marijuana.

Effective July 1, 2021, the new legislation will provide Virginians with limited opportunity to possess and grow marijuana. Initially planned for implementation in 2024 along with recreational sales, the Virginia General Assembly finalized the decision to approve these new laws three years earlier than anticipated.

Following the House, the Senate achieved a ruling when Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax (D) broke a tie to pass the bill as they considered Governor Northam’s bill amendments and budget.

Virginia Makes Progress

While Virginia is not the first state to legalize, it is the first state in the south. The bill does have limitations. Each household may now have up to four marijuana plants. They must be labeled concealed from the public and those under the legal age of 21 if grown indoors.

Additionally, the law will still prevent public use, including smoking in public or vehicles. There is still no plan to expedite recreational sales, which will require additional voting to regulate. Before business licenses are approved, Virginians may begin growing and possessing marijuana without facing legal ramifications.

The change was first initiated in late March when Northam suggested that we reconsider Virginia’s possession penalties due to the disproportional nature of enforcement against people of color. Removing the $25 fine for simple possession was the first step in doing so.

Political Divide

Many politicians voiced concerns for these changes, but Sen. Jeremy McPike of Prince William (D) advocated for the new law. As a precursor to recreational regulations, he identified this as “a safe, legal means for folks to produce [marijuana].”

Others, including Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania), argued that “trying to rush another bill with more than 50,000 substantial changes” was the wrong way to go about modifying the drug usage laws.

Safety Concerns

Most of the concerns presented by lawmakers regarded the potential safety threats that could result from these changes. Most significantly, the regulations surrounding the penalty for marijuana usage while driving.

Northam addressed the safety precautions within his initial proposal for immediate funding for public health education campaigns and law police training. Republicans fear there is not enough time for law enforcement to make the necessary adjustments to prepare for the changes.

As Virginia originally planned to legalize simple possession and recreational sales simultaneously, the language will require more discussion, according to Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax). He suggests that those with marijuana in their vehicles “keep it in their trunk” after July 1.

Forgiveness

In addition to legalizing simple possession, the new bill will automatically expunge past marijuana misdemeanor convictions to allow for updates and progression. More serious convictions will likely be addressed through a petition process. Criminal defense attorney Karin Riley Porter suggests that Virginians “take time to understand their rights, and take caution until the process is complete.”

Northam also pushed to include new amendments which allow the Cannabis Control Authority to investigate and revoke businesses licenses for interfering with union organization, failing to pay the set wage put in place by the Department of Labor, or classifying “more than 10 percent of employees as independent contractors.”

Many Republicans were troubled by this as Sen. DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) describes it as “a back door way to appease labor unions.” Likewise, Democrats, like Sen. Chap Peterson (D-Fairfax), are not satisfied with legalization and hope for decriminalization and the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences in the future.

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