VIRGINIA — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday ceremonially signed a bill legalizing the recreational use of marijuana beginning this summer and accelerating a revamp of cannabis laws that have disproportionately jailed Americans of color for nonviolent offenses.
The Virginia General Assembly passed the bill earlier this month after Northam sent the original measure back to the legislature with a series of amendments, including a proposal to accelerate the timeline of its enactment to July 1 instead of Jan. 1, 2024.
Marijuana advocates welcomed the legislation as an “extraordinary victory for cannabis justice.”
The new law comes a year after the state decriminalized marijuana. On July 1, 2020, it was still illegal to possess small amounts of marijuana, but the maximum penalty for people caught with an ounce or less of the drug was reduced from a criminal offense to a $25 civil fine.
Virginia also madelegal in 2020. Possession of authorized medical cannabis products by those registered to participate in the state’s program were granted legal protection. However, only four medical marijuana dispensaries currently are open in the state
Beyond the fanfare, what exactly will be allowed when the new law takes effect July 1?
In short, residents will still need to be careful — from a legal standpoint — with how they obtain and possess marijuana and where they use it.
Many residents, like they’ve been doing for years, will continue buying and using pot in illegal ways. But for those who care about doing it legally, a close reading of the law makes it clear that obtaining and using marijuana in Virginia starting July 1 will be extremely difficult and could involve continuing to engage in illegal acts — at least until Jan. 1, 2024, when retail sales are scheduled to start.
The law lets people 21 and older carry less than one ounce of marijuana in public. If you get caught with more than one ounce but less than one pound, you’ll have to pay up to a $25 civil penalty. If you get caught with more than a pound, you could get one to 10 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.
It will still be illegal to smoke or consume pot in public, including in parks, or offer it to people in public. The penalty for the first offense is $25 fine and a second offense would add mandatory drug treatment. A third offense would constitute a Class 4 misdemeanor, which will result in a $250 fine.
Since retail sales will not be allowed until Jan. 1, 2024, the only legal way to obtain marijuana starting July 1 will be growing your own or getting it as a gift from someone who does. The law allows people to provide up to an ounce of marijuana they’ve grown as a gift to any adult.
But many of the new law’s provisions, when read carefully, may end up killing the buzz surrounding the legislation. For example, the legislation contains a provision that prohibits certain types of transactions that have become where companies sell legal products at high prices that come with what is described as a free gift of marijuana, according to the Virginia Mercury.
The law is very specific on how much you can grow. People can grow up to four plants per household, provided they are not visible from a public street and precautions are taken to prevent unauthorized access by minors.
Home growers must tag each of their plants with their name, driver’s license or state ID number, and note that it is for personal use. Here’s another buzzkill: There is currently no legal way in Virginia to purchase seeds or cuttings for home growing of marijuana.
Bacon’s Rebellion notes that in reality, the new law has “more than a little bit of ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge’ in it.” This means that growers will still have to break the law to get a hold of the seeds and then hope law enforcement ignores the purchase.
Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform Marijuana Laws, told Virginia Mercury the state’s licensed medical growers faced a similar dilemma when their operations began last year but noted they have nonetheless been able to obtain plants.
Once again, the law does not allow for the purchase of marijuana seeds or plants. Growers will need to hope they don’t get caught acquiring them if they want to grow the maximum of four plants at home.
People caught with more plants than legally allowed face escalating penalties, which increase from a $250 fine for between four and 10 plants to felony charges for more than 50 plants.
What about taking the ounce of marijuana you’ve grown or received as a gift on the road with you?
Be careful because police can still stop and arrest you. “Bottom line: Never use marijuana in a car or vehicle. It’s illegal whether you’re the driver or a passenger,” the ACLU Virginia warns.
If you do bring marijuana with you on the road, keep it in the trunk. Having an “open container” of marijuana like a plastic bag, jar, or Tupperware anywhere in the vehicle will give the police reason to presume you consumed it while driving, which is punishable by a misdemeanor and up to $250 fine, according to the ACLU.
And don’t try to bring marijuana into the District of Columbia, even though D.C. also has legalized recreational marijuana. It’s illegal to transport marijuana across state lines in the United States.
Recreational marijuana will be legal starting July 1, but the sale of paraphernalia to grow or use pot recreationally will still be illegal.
According to the law, any person who sells or possesses with intent to sell drug paraphernalia, knowing that it is either designed for use or intended by such person for use to illegally plant, propagate, cultivate, grow, harvest, manufacture, inhale, or otherwise introduce into the human body marijuana is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by no more than 12 months in jail and a fine of no more than $2,500.
Virginia NORML offers a helpful rundown of the laws that will change for marijuana in the state starting July 1.
RELATED: VA Lawmakers Okay Recreational Marijuana Possession, Cultivation