WASHINGTON (CN) — Independence Day just got a little bit freer in the Old Dominion after a new law took effect Thursday allowing Virginia adults age 21 and up to legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to four plants for personal use.
Virginia became the first Southern state to legalize marijuana in April, a month after the state’s Governor Ralph Northam asked the state Legislature to fast-track such a move.
The new law is part of a broader criminal-justice reform effort pushed by Northam and fellow Democrats. During the legislation process, Northam pointed to a report that found, despite the state decriminalizing possession last summer, Black Virginians were still facing three times the number of charges relating to the drug. Those who advocate for legalization often press that doing so corrects such criminal justice imbalances, eliminates black market drug sales and generates additional tax revenue for states.
Congressman Don Beyer, a Democrat representing parts of Virginia firmly within and just outside the Capital Beltway, expressed elation at the move for this reason Thursday.
“Today, after decades of excessive incarceration that disproportionately targeted communities of color, marijuana is legalized in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Beyer tweeted. “I have called for this step for years, and will continue to support and vote for legalization at the federal level.”
For the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, however, there is still more work to be done on this front.
“As we prepare for marijuana legalization on July 1, we cannot forget about the thousands of people who are still behind bars for marijuana convictions,” the organization tweeted Tuesday. “Their release, as soon as possible, must be prioritized. Until that happens, there cannot be justice.”
Among legislators less excited for the law, Republican state Delegate Chris Head back in April called the legalization effort a "train wreck" and said legislators needed more time tp craft the legislation.
“I understand that taking the time to do this right might possibly even lead to charges of racism," Head remarked during a virtual House floor speech that month. "But we have to do this right. And doing it right takes time."
As of Thursday, having too many personal use plants could lead to a $250 civil fee while possessing more than an ounce could lead to a $25 civil fee. Public consumption will still be forbidden, and driving with pot in the car can trigger open-container laws. Personal plants should be kept away from public view, and each one must have a tag with the user’s name and ID number, the law states. It also clarifies that adults sharing under 1 ounce of marijuana will not face civil or criminal penalties.
Conversely, anyone found carrying more than one pound of marijuana could face felony charges — up to a decade in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.
Virginia is now one of 19 states that green lights adult-use legalization for marijuana.
Due to the slow wheels of bureaucracy, it will still be a few years before legal retail sales of marijuana can take place within the state. After a new state agency overseeing the sale of marijuana has been set up, sales can take effect on January 1, 2024.
The state will collect a 21% tax on all products sold in stores and localities will be able to add an additional 3% tax if they wish. Edible products will be maxed out at 5 milligrams per serving with no more than 50 milligrams per package. Schools collect 40% of the funds, with the rest going between equity funds and other state needs.
Much of the business regulation will fall under the power of the Cannabis Control Authority. This body will take some input from a citizen-led committee, the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board, which will help ensure equity in the future market.
A seat on the board, as well as some of the licenses to sell and produce, will be reserved for those who have a history of marijuana offenses on their record. A state loan program, the Virginia Cannabis Equity Business Loan Fund, will also offer lending options for those impacted by marijuana prohibition in the face of traditional banks’ inability to loan money to the industry that is still federally forbidden.
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