As of July 1, 2018, the Commonwealth of Virginia will be the last remaining “laboratory” of the federal prohibition of cannabis. The state has been a leader in the movement toward legalization for years, and the Commonwealth’s adoption of a medical cannabis program has been a model for others to follow. Now it’s time to add recreational cannabis to the list of things that are legal in Virginia.

It’s no secret that Virginia has been a hotbed of marijuana activism and advocacy for over 20 years. In fact, it was only two years after California’s Proposition 215 passed that Governor Doug Wilder became the first governor to sign a piece of legislation recognizing marijuana use as a right. Fast forward to today and the majority of Americans support the legalization of cannabis.

word-image-10896 On 1. In July, recreational cannabis becomes legal in the state of Virginia. But what would that really mean? That’s the question on the minds of the state’s cannabis enthusiasts since Virginia lawmakers legalized possession of up to 1 ounce of recreational marijuana for adults in February of this year. Originally scheduled to start retail in 2024, the three-year wait before penalties on marijuana possession were lifted sparked outrage. In April, MPs voted to bring forward legalisation to 1 January. July of this year. More confusion: Lawmakers included an enabling clause that requires the General Assembly to vote again next year on key parts of the law, which essentially creates a regulatory framework for a legal marijuana market. This process has created some controversy that may not be resolved until years after legalization. Not surprisingly, consumer protection agencies have been inundated with calls from people wanting to know exactly what is allowed under state law in July. Senator Adam Ebbin, one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said people have yet to understand the bill’s limitations. Possession of up to an ounce (28.3 grams) without intent to distribute becomes legal for adults 21 and older. Adults are also allowed to grow up to four marijuana plants per household. But little else will change. People still need to be careful – this is not an official open market for marijuana, Ebbin said. Virginia joins 17 other states that legally allow adults to possess and use marijuana. In each of these states, the law legalized marijuana possession before a legal market for buying and selling was created, said Jenn Michelle Pedini, development director of the National Organization for Marijuana Law Reform. Under Virginia law, the purchase and sale of marijuana remains illegal until Jan. 1, 2024, the illegal date when retail sales are expected to begin. Smoking marijuana in public places also remains illegal. Pedini, who is also executive director of Virginia NORML, said his organization gets questions every day from people who are surprised that the sale of marijuana will not be allowed for three years. The only legal sale of cannabis in Virginia is through a medical (marijuana) program, Pedini said. The Virginia NORML website has a page with answers to frequently asked questions and clarification of ambiguities. The state has also set up a website to answer questions about the new law. Although people can legally grow marijuana plants starting July 1, it will still be illegal to buy the cannabis seeds or cuttings needed to grow them. That’s one of the controversies facing Republican Senator Ryan McDougle, who voted against the bill. The biggest contradiction is that you can’t legally buy recreational marijuana in the state of Virginia, McDougle said. Under federal rules, you may not ship anything (to Virginia), but if you have something, you may keep up to an ounce in Virginia. It’s how you do it that makes the difference. You can’t have it legally, but you can own it, he said. Under the original bill, possession and sale of marijuana would be legalized by 2024. But many social justice advocates have called for an immediate end to unequal treatment of people of color under existing marijuana laws. General Assembly Research and Watchdog found that between 2010 and 2019, black Virgini residents were 3.5 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession and 3.9 times more likely to be convicted, while both populations used marijuana at the same rate. We want to do the right thing, and that means ending unequal enforcement, which will make a big difference in the lives of thousands of Virgini residents, said Alena Yarmoski, spokeswoman for Governor Ralph Northam. She said the government also recognizes the reality that people now have marijuana, even though it is illegal in Virginia. Last year, Virginia had the fourth-largest illicit market, accounting for about $1.8 billion, or 3 percent of the estimated $60 billion in illicit sales nationwide, according to a New Frontier Data report on cannabis in the United States. Because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level and Virginia needs time to establish a regulatory structure that allows for safe sales, the sale of seeds or other types of marijuana will not be legal until 2024, Jarmoski said. People may share small amounts of seeds with each other, but they may not sell them. The main goal of legalization is to reduce criminalization and then provide safe legal access, so this year we’re checking one bill but not the other, Pedini said. Pedini said some states have accelerated access to marijuana for adults through medical marijuana dispensaries, and advocates hope Virginia lawmakers will vote to do so in 2022. Most people will not grow cannabis, but most who want to participate in the adult-use market will choose to do so through legal channels, she said. Medical marijuana has been legal in Virginia since 2017. Since then, the state has expanded the program to make it legal for patients with any health condition to use cannabis, as long as it does not contain more than 10 mg of THC. Last year, Virginia became the 27th state to decriminalize cannabis possession.

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