ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The Old Dominion was once known for tobacco, although those days are long gone. Now, Virginia is about to be known for something else: marijuana. And as the only southern state with legal recreational cannabis, pot-trepreneurs here are eager to rake in profits and the state is poised to take in an extra $300 million a year in anticipated tax revenue that the commonwealth’s southern neighbors are missing out on. Though patience will be required, because over the counter sales are still a few years out.
Still, advocates are pumped, because as of today marijuana is legal in Virginia.
“Virginians have long been calling for the end of prohibition,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, the executive director of Virginia NORML, tells The News Station. “In 2021, their voices are finally being heard.”
But Virginia isn’t Colorado, so small amounts of cannabis only. Possession of more than an ounce can result in a civil penalty of $25, while possession of more than one pound remains a felony. For advocates who have been toiling in the trenches for years, the new law which is now in effect is the culmination of years of determination in the face of seemingly impossible odds.
“They did sort of end up in a Goldilocks situation where they’re not at the super high end and they’re not at the super low end.”Paul Seaborn, a professor at the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia
Pedini, who led the fight for legalization in Virginia, says the incremental approach of legalizing pot in small amounts mirrors the way other states have eased into legalization, allowing small amounts before gradually increasing how much of the substance consumers can legally have on them at a given time.
Even with advocates cheering, they’re also warning that criminalizing large amounts of marijuana is a mistake.
“This is one step to eliminate the racist policing around simple possession,” Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice Virginia, tells The News Station. “People are still incarcerated for larger amounts than one ounce, and Virginia is making a way to profit off of pounds of marijuana while really ignoring and neglecting a lot of folks who have lost their lives and their families to the enforcement of marijuana that has been disproportionately on Black Virginians.”
Although commercial sales won’t begin until New Year’s Day 2024, Virginia’s new statute allows each household to grow four plants.. Smoking cannabis in public remains illegal, although you can smoke it in the privacy of your home or anywhere on your property.
In many ways, the new rules around pot mirror all the existing ones around alcohol. Having an open container of marijuana in a vehicle is not allowed, and driving under the influence remains illegal. But getting cannabis on somewhat equal footing as booze is a seismic shift here.
“The prohibition on marijuana has failed both in this commonwealth and in this country,” Democratic state Sen. Adam Ebbin, who introduced the measure legalizing marijuana, says. “Cannabis does not have to be the boogeyman that some are making it out to be.”
The long and strange journey from prohibition to legalization began after Democrats won control of the House and Senate in 2019. The following year, they decriminalized marijuana and began laying the groundwork for legalization.
Earlier this year, lawmakers passed the legalization bill, although the lieutenant governor had to break a tie in the state Senate because of opposition from some conservative Democrats.
“People smoke marijuana to get high,” Sen. Chap Petersen says. “The purpose of smoking it is to create an altered mental state, and that may be fine on your own time but once you legalize something people have the ability to pretty much use it anytime they want.”
Commercial sales are on hold until 2024, in part, so regulators can set up the regulations that will soon manage this burgeoning industry.
Specifically, the General Assembly still needs to figure out how the licenses to manufacture and sell marijuana will be distributed — and, importantly, who will get them. The proposal currently on the table allows for 400 retail locations across Virginia — a sprawling state that touches the nation’s capital and the Atlantic Ocean, along with Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia. That limited number of retail locations is significantly fewer than some states, while also significantly more than others.
“People are still incarcerated for larger amounts than one ounce, and Virginia is making a way to profit off of pounds of marijuana while really ignoring and neglecting a lot of folks who have lost their lives and their families to the enforcement of marijuana that has been disproportionately on Black Virginians.”Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice Virginia
“They did sort of end up in a Goldilocks situation where they’re not at the super high end and they’re not at the super low end,” Paul Seaborn — a professor at the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia — tells The News Station.
When the Cannabis Control Authority starts granting licenses, some applicants are likely to have priority over others. For example, lawmakers are considering giving preference to people who have been convicted of possessing marijuana or are living in the neighborhoods that have been disproportionately — and heavy-handedly — policed.
“You cannot provide preferential treatment lifting up one class or group of citizens without diminishing the rights of another,” Republican Sen. Bill DeSteph says.
That sets the stage for a combative new year, because members of Black Lives Matter, criminal justice advocates and pot proponents say — even as they’re celebrating today — they’re ready for the intense battle that awaits.