Virginia will start to loosen restrictions on recreational marijuana on July 1, but the timeline and details of that loosening are anything but cut-and-dry.
The Virginia General Assembly in April voted to legalize possession of up to an ounce (28.3 grams) of marijuana by adults 21 and over, with no intent to distribute. The smoking marijuana in public will remain illegal.
Originally, legislators had voted to legalize marijuana possession in 2024, but the General Assembly responded to widespread public outcry by bumping up the date to next Thursday.
Michelle Thomas, president of the NAACP Loudoun Branch, told the Times-Mirror that this change will help curb the “unfair targeting … and prolonged sentencing” of African Americans for marijuana possession.
“No longer can they criminalize or search your vehicle because you have a small portion of possession of marijuana,” she said. “That’s a good thing; I think there’s a lot of Black men especially, and women, who have for so long been targeted.”
According to General Assembly research, Black Virginians in the 2010s were 3.5 times more likely than white Virginians to be arrested for possessing marijuana and 3.9 times more likely to be convicted, despite both groups using the drug at similar rates.
“Now they’ll be able to even have some of their charges expunged because of the legalization and be able to live full lives,” Thomas said.
Virginians will also be able to legally cultivate marijuana plants starting July 1. However, buying and selling marijuana — as well as cannabis seeds and the cuttings required to grow marijuana plants — won’t be legalized until Jan. 1, 2024.
Until then, the state’s medical marijuana program will be the only legal means of obtaining the drug, recreational users left without a legal source for the drug.
Virginia’s illicit marijuana market encompassed about $1.8 billion in 2020, making it the fourth-largest illegal market in the country, according to the U.S. Cannabis Report from New Frontier Data.
Barbara Biddle, of Centreville, owns Leesburg’s District Hemp Botanicals, which became Loudoun County’s first hemp-based cannabidiol (CBD) store when it opened in January 2019.
She said the announcement of new marijuana laws ushered in “a wave of calls” from customers asking about where they could purchase high-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) marijuana products. Delta-9 THC is the main active ingredient of cannabis, a compound that causes the drug’s psychological effects.
When she tells callers the actual sale and purchase of marijuana won’t be legal for nearly three years, Biddle said “a lot of them are disappointed by that news.”
“A lot of people are really excited about the legalization — especially people that have been smoking for decades at this point,” Biddle told the Times-Mirror. “It’s definitely a turning point.”
She said she and her District Hemp employees are “very excited” to start selling high-THC products in 2024. The store currently sells items with delta-8 THC, a legal compound similar to the still-illegal delta-9 THC.
“It’s synthesized from hemp-derived CBD and the only difference is one single chemical bond, so it causes a slightly milder effect,” Biddle said of delta-8 THC.
Once the sale and purchase of marijuana becomes legal, Thomas said Black Virginians will still face hurdles when trying to enter the selling market during the expected “financial boom.”
“There’s still a barrier for African Americans — access to the capital so that we can afford [licensure],” Thomas said.
“African Americans have been farming in Virginia since the 1600s. Profiting [from] their farming? Not so much,” she said. “This is an opportunity for African Americans to profit off of the skill that they brought to this country.”
While marijuana possession will be legal for most adults, Virginia’s major public universities are still banning use of the drug on campus. Virginia Tech was the first major university in the state to update its student code of conduct to specifically address the upcoming legalization of marijuana, according to The Roanoke Times.
“As with all public universities in Virginia who receives [sic] federal funding, Virginia Tech will continue to prohibit the use or possession of cannabis on university grounds and university events because of the Drug Free Schools and Communities Act,” VT Associate Vice President for University Relations Mark Owczarski said in an email to the Times-Mirror.
The federal Drug Free Schools and Communities Act was passed in 1989 and prohibits marijuana use or possession anywhere on public college campuses, regardless of state laws.
“That legislation has not changed, and we are still bound to abide by it,” Owczarski said.
Other commonwealth institutions including the University of Virginia, Radford University and Virginia Commonwealth University will continue to similarly ban on-campus marijuana use. Students may possess or use marijuana off-campus as long as they are in compliance with state law.