Marijuana is legal for medical and recreational purposes in Virginia. Persons over 21 years old can possess up to 1 ounce (28.3 grams) of marijuana and cultivate up to four plants in their household.
Virginia was one of the first states in the U.S. to legalize medical marijuana in 1979. Medicinal marijuana was legalized through the Code of Virginia § 18.2-251.1, which allowed the possession or distribution of marijuana prescribed by a qualified medical doctor for treating cancer or glaucoma. Virginia House Bill 1251, passed in 2018, allows medical patients to access marijuana for medical purposes on the recommendations of registered medical practitioners. Medical practitioners' recommendations are needed to obtain medicinal marijuana (MMJ) cards, which permit cardholders to buy medical marijuana in Virginia.
There is no specific list of medical conditions qualifying for medicinal marijuana in Virginia. Patients qualify for medical cannabis with any medical condition or symptom, provided a licensed practitioner diagnosis, and approved the patient for the medical marijuana program. Also, the patient must obtain their medicinal marijuana card in Virginia.
Before July 2022, patients and caregivers must present a written certification, government-issued ID, and Board registration at a dispensary to obtain medical marijuana. Effective July 2022, medical marijuana patients, caregivers, and parents do not have to register with the Board of Pharmacy. However, medical marijuana patients must present a government-issued ID and a written certification from a registered practitioner at the dispensary to obtain cannabis products.
Medical marijuana is produced and sold by pharmaceutical processors in Virginia. There are presently four approved pharmaceutical processors in the state. The Virginia Board of Pharmacy is charged with regulating marijuana for medical use and administration of MMJ cards in the state. The board operates under the Virginia Department of Health Professions.
In July 2020, Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 972, decriminalized simple possession of marijuana in Virginia. Possession of 1 ounce of marijuana is punishable by a fine of $25. The bill also seals past marijuana convictions from schools and employers. In a report, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimated that over $67 million in taxpayer's money was spent on enforcing marijuana laws in 2010. It also found that African-Americans were three times more likely to be arrested for simple possession of marijuana than white residents. These occasioned the push for decriminalization of marijuana in the state.
In 2021, Virginia took major steps towards marijuana legalization, as about 68% of Virginia's voters supported it. Initially, the state's lawmakers voted to legalize marijuana in 2024. However, with amendments made to Senate Bill 1406 and House Bill 2312, the timeline for the legalization of home cultivation and use was brought forward by three years and took effect on July 1, 2021. The new law legalizes tax and regulates marijuana for persons over 21 years. However, retail sales will not begin until January 1, 2024. The law created the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority to oversee the cultivation, production, wholesale, and retail sale of cannabis and cannabis products. The Board of Directors of this body determines the details of the regulatory measures, issues fines, and approves licenses for retail sale. The measures will be subject to the approval of the Cannabis Oversight Commission, which will begin operations in 2024. On July 1, 2023, the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority will start receiving applications for licenses. A city, town, or county may pass a referendum prohibiting the retail sale of cannabis within its jurisdiction, but no local body may restrict cannabis possession, cultivation, or use.
Senate Bill 1406 and House Bill 2312 also allow for the private cultivation of not more than four marijuana plants for personal use. However, the owner of a private residence can prohibit the cultivation and use of marijuana on its premises. Colleges and universities do not allow marijuana on their campuses. Employers and private workplaces can make policies regarding drug use. Residents must not use or consume marijuana while driving. Any person under 21 years cannot consume, purchase, or possess marijuana. Until January 1, 2024, it is illegal under any circumstances to sell marijuana.
Although the recreational use of marijuana is legal in Virginia, persons with a prior conviction cannot purchase, smoke, or possess marijuana unless prescribed and authorized by a medical practitioner. Marijuana use by a felon leads to probation violations with a risk of negative consequences for the individual, including jail time.
Furthermore, per the new law, individuals can petition for the suspension and modification of previous marijuana conviction penalties or seal past marijuana conviction records. However, the new law makes public possession of more than 1 pound of marijuana a felony. This is punishable by a prison term between one to ten years. Having between 1 ounce and 1 pound of marijuana in public is a civil infraction punishable by a fine of $25.
Before marijuana legalization in Virginia, the potential economic impact was examined separately by the Virginia Marijuana Legalization Work Group (VMLWG) and the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC). The VMLWG was established by the state's General Assembly in May 2020 to investigate the economic impact of cannabis legalization. It was constituted by government officials, healthcare professionals, policy experts, and community leaders. It released the report of its study on November 30, 2020. The JLARC was set up by Senate Joint Resolution 67 and House Joint Resolution 130 to examine how the state can legalize marijuana and its possible impact if legalized. It released its report on November 16, 2020. The outcomes of both studies revealed the following:
Tax Revenue : The VMLWG's report stated that recreational sales could generate between $698 million and $1.2 billion in economic activity and $274 million in tax revenue annually. However, it stated that the study is based on certain assumptions, many of which may change after Virginia implements a legalization program. Also, the industry will most certainly take at least five years to mature, adding to the uncertainties.
According to the JLARC, the sale of marijuana in Virginia could generate between $31million to $62 million in tax revenue within the first year of sales of recreational marijuana. It is estimated that marijuana will generate between $154 million to $308 million in tax revenue over five years. The state government has earmarked 30% of marijuana tax revenue to the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund.
Implementation and Operational Costs : The VMLWG and JLARC studies identified that the legalization of marijuana will have implementation and operational costs. This is because the state created a new agency to regulate the implementation of Senate Bill 1406 and House Bill 2312. The Work Group estimated, based on experiences from other states, that there will be costs of about $9 million. This includes administration, support, and law enforcement costs. The JLARC study revealed that the associated operational costs will include the cost of running a state regulatory agency, public health programs, and social equity programs. These costs will leave the state with between $177 million and $300 million in net tax revenue if the marijuana sale tax rate is set at 25%. If it is set at 20%, it will be between $147 million and $250 million. The state tax for recreational marijuana sales is 21% statewide, in addition to standard 6% sales taxes. Localities can impose an additional sales tax of not more than 3% to preexisting state sales tax rates.
Income and Jobs : The JLARC stated that the Virginia marijuana industry will create between 11,000 to 18,000 new jobs, an additional 0.3% to 0.5% to the state's workforce. However, these jobs would not be created all at once.
Through Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 972, Virginia decriminalized marijuana in July 2020, making possession of up to 1 ounce (28 grams) of marijuana a civil infraction punishable by a $25 fine. Since it is a civil infraction, it is not included in an offender's criminal record. However, the sale and production of marijuana are criminal offenses under Virginia law.
According to the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services in the Virginia Index Crime and Drug Arrest Trends, 2008-2017 published in May 2019, marijuana arrests accounted for about 71% of drug arrests. In 2019, the Virginia State Police reported that it made 26,470 marijuana arrests. In 2020, this number reduced significantly by 48.3% to 13,674 due to the decriminalization of marijuana effective July 1, 2020. By 2021, the number of marijuana arrests drastically reduced by 82% to 2,543 from 2020. Marijuana arrest figures for 2021 accounted for 15% of all drug arrests.
Virginia established one of the earliest medicinal marijuana laws in 1979 as a clause in the state's criminal code VA Code §18.2-250.1. The law provided that a person who obtained a valid prescription from a doctor to use cannabis to alleviate the symptoms of glaucoma or the side effects of chemotherapy would not be punished for marijuana possession.
In 2015, through House Bill 1445 and Senate Bill 1235, the state established the affirmative defense for registered patients, caregivers, and pharmaceutical processors. These bills were introduced by David B. Albo and Mark J. Peake respectively. This law allowed them to show their registration when stopped by law enforcement officers or arrested and arraigned before a court of law as their defense for possessing marijuana. The laws, however, did not establish a framework for cultivating and distributing marijuana.
Also, 2015 saw Virginia's first attempt to decriminalize simple marijuana possession. Senate Bill 686, introduced by Adam P. Ebbin, attempts to treat simple possession as a civil penalty by eliminating the 30-day jail sentence and reducing the fine from $500 to $100. Furthermore, the bill reduces the criminal penalties for possession with intent to distribute, permits the cultivation of up to six marijuana plants, permits the distribution of marijuana paraphernalia, and limits asset forfeiture to the sale and distribution of marijuana above one pound. The same year, Adam Ebbin introduced Senate Bill 1444, which aimed to revise the penalty of six months' loss of driver's license for simple possession of marijuana. However, both bills failed in the Senate.
In 2017, the General Assembly approved Senate Bill 1027, introduced by David W. Marsden. This law permitted limited marijuana cultivation, dispense, and access to cannabidiol (CBD) or tetrahydrocannabinol acid (THCA) oil for patients diagnosed with intractable epilepsy. In 2018, House Bill 1251, proposed by Benjamin Cline, was signed into law providing access to medical marijuana to more Virginians by allowing registered practitioners to recommend it to any patient who could benefit. This law allowed marijuana treatment for various medical conditions, provided a registered practitioner recommended marijuana treatment. The state also licensed five medicinal marijuana dispensaries (called "pharmaceutical processors"), making it possible for patients to access marijuana. These dispensaries sell medical cannabis in Virginia in CBD oil or THC-A oil, which can have up to 5% THC.
In 2019, Senate Bill 1557, proposed by Siobhan Dunnavant, was passed. By this law, nurses and physician assistants can issue written certifications for patients to use medical cannabis extracts. It also provided that each dose could contain a maximum of 10 milligrams of THC. In the Virginia General Assembly, Harvey Morgan introduced the first marijuana legalization measure in 2010. Although it did not pass, state legislators continued to push for the reform for various reasons, including racial disparities in the criminal justice system and escalating marijuana arrest rates across the Commonwealth. However, in the 2020 General Assembly Session, a marijuana decriminalization bill was enacted. The legislation, which consisted of House Bill 972 and Senate Bill 2, introduced by Charniele Herring and Adam Ebbin, respectively, took effect on July 1, 2020. This law decriminalized marijuana and created a $25 civil penalty for simple possession. A person caught with 1 ounce or less of marijuana would have a rebuttable presumption for personal use.
In 2021, Charniele Herring and Adam Ebbin again proposed the legalization of marijuana in Virginia through House Bill 2312 and Senate Bill 1406. The law was passed in April 2021, and it took effect on July 1, 2021. This makes Virginia the first southern state in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana and the fourth to do this through legislation. The law was initially planned to take effect in 2024, but Governor Ralph Northam played a significant role in bringing the date forward. It allows possession of a maximum of an ounce (28 grams) of marijuana and the cultivation of up to four plants per household beginning July 1, 2021.
In July of 2022, Governor Glenn Youngkin signed the budget bill into law, re-criminalizing the public possession of over four ounces of marijuana. Senate Bill 591, introduced by Emmeett W. Hanger Jr. with staggering effective dates, creates two new misdemeanor charges for the public possession of marijuana. It imposes a penalty of six months jail term and fines up to $1,000 for possession of over two ounces of marijuana and a one-year jail term and fines of $2,500 for over six ounces of marijuana. In addition, the governor’s amendment modifies the definition of marijuana and prohibits the retail sale of marijuana products in any form depicting the shape of a fruit, human, vehicle, or animal.
The governor also signed Senate Bill 671, proposed by Siobhan S. Dunnavant, and House Bill 933, introduced by Roxann L. Robinson, in 2022. Both bills are similar and eliminate the requirement for patients to register with the Board of Pharmacy after obtaining a written certificate from a licensed practitioner to obtain their medical cannabis, effective July 1st, 2022. The bill also requires the Board to publish several marijuana regulations for pharmaceutical processors by September 15th, 2022.
During the Virginia General Assembly in 2022, Senate Bill 391, introduced by Adam P. Ebbin, was passed by the senate with staggering effective dates. The bill aims to establish the foundation, including the regulatory and licensing structure for the wholesale, cultivation, and manufacture of recreational marijuana. It further makes provisions to modify criminal penalties regarding marijuana offenses. However, part of the bill permitting the transactional sales of adult-use marijuana by September 2022 failed at the subcommittee. If passed, the bill authorizes medical marijuana dispensaries and some industrial hemp processors to begin the sale of recreational marijuana a year ahead before the retail market opens in 2024.
Retail sales of marijuana will take effect on July 1, 2024. This gives the proposed Cannabis Control Authority and other entities created by the law to establish the required framework for regulating cultivation, production, distribution, and retail sales before the rest provisions of the bill take effect. Virginia incorporated provisions to address long-standing issues such as race, social fairness, and cannabis law enforcement. Among the measures are licensing preferences for communities and persons most harmed by the drug war and the investment of a third of cannabis sales tax proceeds. Since these bills were passed in a special session, they will be re-approved in 2022.