Virginia moves to legalize cannabis


Image via Northern Virginia Magazine

Helen Ehrlich, Editor-In-Chief

Virginia’s state legislature has moved to legalize cannabis, making it the first state in the South to do so. A vote in the Virginia General Assembly had the necessary result of 55-42 (two abstentions), and the Senate later passed their proposed bill 23-15. Virginians who are 21 and over will be allowed to start purchasing cannabis for recreational usage (likely beginning in 2024).


As Governor Northam’s term runs out, legalization of cannabis has become one of his parting focuses. Northam’s proposal was encouraged by long term efforts of activists, including the Virginia ACLU. He set aside funds in the new state budget to work on the expungement of all cannabis-related offenses, which activists say is crucial to achieving true justice. All misdemeanor cannabis convictions will be expunged automatically, but felony cases will be reviewed on a case-by-case petition basis. Recreational usage is at almost completely racially balanced, but Virginia’s arrest rates disproportionately impact Black and brown residents. Black people are three times more likely to get arrested for these offenses.


As the lone Southern location with legalized recreational adult cannabis usage, Virginia will also see a rise in tourism. Washington DC legalized cannabis usage in 2015, but it cannot be purchased in the District. This will likely influence what is referred to as the “border-town effect,” with state line boundaries appealing to new dispensaries.


Legalization will reportedly bring $300 million in tax revenue to the commonwealth. There will be a 21% tax on all cannabis sales, and localities are permitted to add an additional 3% retailer tax. States like Oregon, which legalized cannabis but allowed their market to explode and run rampant, have demonstrated the need for tight regulation in order to optimize the financial benefit and safety of the transition.


Now lawmakers are debating over the timeline of legalization. Retailing has been pushed back to January of 2024, a year later than Northam’s initial goal. Racial and regional equality will also be harshly scrutinized by lawmakers when it comes to license distribution. Despite the high arrest rates of Black people when it comes to cannabis offenses, white people have been the ones to most greatly profit off of legalization. Virginia wants to avoid furthering this systemic issue. Medical cannabis distributors have also expressed concerns that they will lose their market.


Lawmakers have established a new agency to address the details of legalization. The original proposal had a new board established within the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (ABC), but an independent agency will now be developed. Fairfax’s Senator Scott Surovell explained, “We are taking only a portion of what ABC does and trying to fit into that system.”


Per the request of State Senator and candidate for governor, Jennifer McClellan, the Senate amended the legislation to legalize the possession of up to an ounce of cannabis. The House has not discussed doing the same. “If we know we’re going down the road of legalizing, it seems to me the repeal of simple possession at a minimum should take effect July 1 of this year. Otherwise all we’re doing is setting up a situation where people are going to continue paying civil fines for something that’s going to be completely legal eventually,” McClellan stated to her colleagues.


This stance was backed by some legal advocacy groups, but others opposed it. “I’m excited that we’ve chosen to have an independent agency, but what worries me is that we are aligning timing of regulation with timing of repealing the prohibition for simple possession, and those two things should not be legislated together,” said Marijuana Justice’s director Chelsea Higgs Wise.


Virginia’s legalization move coming less than a year after it decriminalized the drug further demonstrates Virginia’s Democratic shift.