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Virginia Governor Signs Bill Officially Legalizing Cannabis

The 16th state to legalize pot is also the first Southern state to approve the reform.

Erin Hinterland, Pixabay

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed the state’s adult-use marijuana bill into law on Wednesday, April 21. The bill signing was a big moment for cannabis-law reform as Virginia—the first Southern state to approve recreational marijuana—made legalization official.

However, the signing was a ceremonial event as the state legislature effectively legalized cannabis when they passed amendments the governor made to the adult-use bill two weeks ago, on April 7.

Virginia became the 16th state to legalize cannabis, doing so just a week after New York passed its tax and regulate law. Beginning on July 1, 2021, adults 21 and older in Virginia can legally possess up to an ounce of pot. Home cultivation of up to four plants will also be permitted at that time.

The Senate vote earlier this month was close and, predictably, along party lines as no Republican senators supported the bill. Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) broke a 20-20 tie to pass the law.

Gov. Ralph Northam was instrumental in moving the legalization start date from 2024 to this summer—an amendment approved by the legislature. However, while it will be legal to possess pot in Virginia as of July 1, retail sales are likely still years away, as the state anticipates granting dispensary licenses in 2024. And, at the moment, Virginia does not plan on allowing medical marijuana dispensaries to sell recreational cannabis.

Still, it’s important to keep in mind that adjustments can be made, and lawmakers could opt to open the market earlier. The revenue generated by recreational marijuana can be a powerful motivator. As things stand, the state would be missing out on three years of cannabis sales tax revenue.

Regardless of when retail sales begin, the legalization bill is a huge step for marijuana-law reform, as Virginia became the first Southern state to pass recreational pot. And it couldn’t come soon enough for people of color, as a state study revealed that black residents are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for possession than white residents. The disproportionate arrest rate remained the same after Virginia decriminalized cannabis in 2020.

State lawmakers hope the legalization effort will address harms caused by the war on cannabis beyond ending the disproportionate arrests, as 30 percent of revenue from the program will go to communities most impacted by prohibition.

Public support for legalization is strong in Virginia as 68 percent of voters back the reform, according to a recent poll. But not everyone is convinced. Recreational cannabis did not receive any support from Republicans in the Senate and one GOP congressman, Rep. Bob Good, officially asked Gov. Northam to veto the bill, citing his concern that marijuana is a gateway drug.  

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