Virginia Legislature Passes Adult-Use Cannabis Legalization Bill

According to the bill, which now awaits the governor’s signature, cannabis legalization and decriminalization policies will begin in 2024.

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March 1, 2021

Sean Pavone | Adobe Stock
Implementing an adult-use cannabis program doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s officially on the to-do list for the Virginia state legislature. Pending Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature, Virginia would become the first southern state to legalize cannabis, but not until Jan. 1, 2024.

The state’s legislative chambers overcame differences to pass a compromise bill on Saturday—Senate Bill 1406 and House Bill 2312—to legalize cannabis possession, personal cultivation and retail sales for adults 21 and older.

RELATED: Virginia Is Moving Quickly on the Governor’s Cannabis Legalization Proposal. But What Happens Next?

The partisan bill drew three sponsors and two co-sponsors, all Democrats, in the 40-seat Senate, as well as five sponsors and 20 co-sponsors, all Democrats, in the 100-seat House. When Democrats flipped both chambers in 2019, they gained control of both the legislature and governor’s office for the first time in more than two decades.

“Equitable legalization of marijuana is an essential step towards racial justice in Virginia,” House Majority Leader Delegate Charniele Herring, primary sponsor of H.B. 2312, said in a prepared statement. “We have created a plan to start this important work, and we will continue to move forward and compromise to get this work done together.”

Northam, who supports adult-use legalization, unveiled a proposal in January that would have allowed cannabis sales to start Jan. 1, 2023—a year earlier than the legislature’s timeline. Northam has the option to approve the compromise bill, amend it or veto it.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, the development director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said in a press release she hopes to continue working to accelerate specific facets of the push for legalization.

“This effort remains a work in progress and our efforts in Virginia are far from over,” said Pedini, who also serves as the executive director of Virginia NORML.

“NORML is dedicated to continuing our work with lawmakers and regulators to advance legislative reforms that are most closely aligned with the views of the majority of Virginians who desire a safe, legal cannabis market,” she said. “In particular, we hope to expedite the timeline with which Virginia adults will no longer face either criminal or civil penalties for the personal possession and cultivation of cannabis.”

Statewide polling data released Feb. 2, 2021, by Christopher Newport University’s Watson Center for Civic Leadership, showed that 68% of registered voters in Virginia, including majorities of Democrats and Republicans, support adult-use cannabis legalization. That mirrored the 68% of Americans who support legalization, according to a November 2020 Gallup poll.

Highlighted in the compromise bill passed Saturday is the automatic sealing of low-level past cannabis offenses, a social equity program that would promote inclusion in the legal cannabis industry and the earmarking of 30% of tax revenue to a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund, a program to provide scholarships, training and workforce development opportunities in areas hit hardest by prohibition.

Steve Hawkins, the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), an organization that works solely on cannabis policy reform in the U.S., said in a press release that Virginia is an example of how enacting cannabis legislation can do more than just legalize the cultivation, sale and use of a flowering plant.

“Virginia legislators are proving that it is possible to work swiftly to pass legislation that would not only legalize cannabis, but also address the disproportionate harm caused by decades of prohibition,” Hawkins said. “Virginia is on the brink of becoming the 16th state to end cannabis prohibition and replace it with sensible legalization and regulation for adults 21 and over. MPP is proud to have played an important role in all three states where legislatures have voted to legalize cannabis—Vermont, Illinois, and now Virginia.”

As the compromise bill stands, adults 21 and older could possess up to 1 ounce of cannabis, or the equivalent amount of cannabis products, beginning Jan. 1, 2024. Adults could securely and discreetly cultivate up to four cannabis plants at their primary residence. Possessing more than an ounce, but no more than 1 pound, would be punishable by a civil fine of up to $25. And possessing more than a pound could result in one to 10 years in prison.

In addition, punitive measures would be in place for public consumption, consumption in a motor vehicle, possession by minors, possession on school grounds and transportation of cannabis into the state.

Also in the bill, legislators agreed to establish an independent agency in July 2021, the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority, to oversee regulations and licensing, inclusion and equity. A five-member board of directors would institute the number of licensees, which could not exceed 400 retailers, 25 wholesalers, 450 cultivators and 60 product manufacturers. A state tax of 21% at the point of retail sale would be levied, in addition to standard 6% sales taxes. Localities could impose a tax of up to 3% on sales to consumers in the municipality.

Many of the provisions in the 300-page bill are subject to a second review and vote by members of the General Assembly in 2022. However, provisions that do not require further action include legalizing cannabis possession and sales on Jan. 1, 2024, as well as the start of regulatory work. 

“The advancement of this legislation is another historic step for cannabis justice in Virginia,” Pedini said. “Stakeholders, the administration and the legislature have dedicated hundreds of hours to craft legislation that is just and equitable, and that will replace the failed policy of cannabis prohibition with one that promotes Virginia’s economy as well as Virginians’ public health and safety.”