Workers at gLeaf Medical tend to plants in a grow room at the Richmond medical marijuana dispensary. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
As of today, marijuana is legal for adults 21 and older to possess, consume and grow in Virginia. But unless a doctor has signed off on a prescription, there’s no legal way to buy it.
Lawmakers have set a 2024 target to begin retail sales to recreational users, a runway the legislation’s authors say is necessary to establish the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority, which will regulate the new market.
But some legalization advocates are hoping the General Assembly will agree to speed up that time frame.
“Our priority in the 2022 legislative session is to expedite retail access for adult consumers, both through already operational medical dispensaries and by moving up the date VCCA can begin issuing new licenses,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.
The medical dispensaries had lobbied to be allowed to begin selling to recreational customers beginning this year, but lawmakers resisted, worrying it would give the companies an unfair head start in a market where they hope to encourage minority-owned and small businesses.
Other advocates say the General Assembly’s immediate focus should be on the criminal justice side of the law. Democratic lawmakers who championed the legislation framed it primarily as a matter of racial justice in light of statistics showing Black people were three times more likely to be charged with possession than White people despite surveys showing the two groups use the drug at roughly the same rate.
Chelsea Higgs Wise, who founded Marijuana Justice, which led a coalition of criminal justice reform groups that worked on the law, applauded the decision to speed legalization. But she said getting the retail market off the ground is secondary to other work the General Assembly has left undone.
Among other things, she pointed to lawmakers’ decision not to include a resentencing provision for people currently incarcerated on marijuana charges, a category that likely includes hundreds of people. While lawmakers passed expungement provisions for past charges, they said they ran out of time to include language addressing resentencing.
“Pushing up commercial sales purely for access to weed is not the priority when this always has been and has to be a racial justice issue,” Higgs Wise said. “The July 1 law is rooted in eliminating racist enforcement of simple possession, not to expand access. Because it’s always been accessible, but only certain people have been criminalized for it.”
She said lawmakers should also prioritize eliminating criminal penalties for youth caught with the drug as well as open container laws that make it illegal to have the drug in the passenger area of a vehicle even if it’s not being used — two laws she predicted would continue to be disproportionately enforced against Black Virginians.
She also called for the repeal of language included in the new law that bars public consumption, something she said would effectively prevent legal use by the homeless and residents of public housing and private complexes that include language in leases prohibiting the use of marijuana.
“We’ve seen places like D.C. and New York when this happen — those are exactly the people feeling the brunt of the penalties. They’re just too accessible to law enforcement.”
Attorney General Mark Herring, one of the earlier and more vocal proponents of legalization in Virginia, said all significant legislation requires compromise and refinement. During a tour Tuesday of gLeaf, the medical dispensary in Richmond, he withheld judgement on the approach the General Assembly has taken and the changes they will weigh when they convene next year.
“My goal is going to be identifying any areas moving forward that might need to be adjusted because it conflicts with other areas of the law or it may not be effective,” he said.
Asked if he had any legal advice for state residents trying to navigate the intricacies of the new law, he referred interested parties to an FAQ set up by the executive branch.
“I think the state has a good website,” he said. “Make sure you check that so you’re in full compliance with any rules.”
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