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Recreational Marijuana In Virginia: First Southern State To Legalize Recreationally

by Kit O'Connell

In a historic moment for the entire country, Virginia became the first Southern state to legalize recreational marijuana (high-THC cannabis).

“It gives me hope that other Southern states will come to their senses,” said Jason Amatucci, a co-founder of Anavii Market.

Some other states, like Florida, have medical marijuana programs, but Virginia became the first state in the Southern U.S. to legalize recreationally. Other states in the U.S. are legalizing too.

For example, New Mexico also announced their plans to legalize marijuana, this month.

I spoke with Jason to get the inside scoop on Virginia’s new recreational marijuana law. I wanted to understand what it means for the hemp industry, and the country as a whole as we lurch towards total legalization of cannabis.

While legalization advocates and supporters of drug war reform like Jason say the new law is an important step, it comes with limitations. For example, while everyday Virginia residents will soon be allowed to grow cannabis at home, growing too many plants or otherwise violating the strict boundaries of the new law could still incur significant jail time.

Before I get too deep into that, let’s just look at some of what the new bill does and doesn’t do.

Is marijuana legal in Virginia? About Virginia Marijuana Legalization:

  • Virginia is the first state in the U.S. South to legalize recreational marijuana (cannabis). 
  • Recreational marijuana will be legal in Virginia starting on July 1, 2021. Dispensaries selling marijuana won’t open until at least July 2024.
  • Virginia residents can grow up to 4 plants at home. No license is needed for home growing.
  • It’s still illegal to bring marijuana into Virginia from out of state.
  • You can carry up to an ounce on you at a time, but can’t have an “open container” of cannabis in the car with you. Police cannot use the smell of marijuana as a pretext to pull you over.
  • You can gift a friend with up to an ounce at a time.
  • No public consumption will be allowed. Consumption at dispensaries is strictly prohibited except by employees for limited “tasting purposes.” No legal cannabis cafes are expected to open in Virginia.
  • Virginia will begin automatically expunging records of most nonviolent cannabis offenses, but won’t be releasing prisoners convicted of violating cannabis laws from prisons early.
  • People who violate the law, including growing too many plants, or carrying over a pound of marijuana, could face serious penalties including felony charges and jail time of up to a decade.

Does Virginia marijuana law go far enough? Advocates worry there are still too many regulations

Jason is a passionate supporter of both hemp and cannabis. As president of the Virginia Hemp Coalition, he influenced both hemp and cannabis laws in the Commonwealth of Virginia, including the recent legalization.

Jason cited several concerns with the new marijuana law, which he said doesn’t go far enough. He said there are too many opportunities for legal penalties, and too many ways it gives power to out-of-state marijuana corporations at the expense of smaller companies.

“We are for a free market cannabis economy in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Jason said, speaking for his organization.

Jason hopes the cannabis industry in Virginia becomes similar to the local craft beer industry, which allows smaller players to easily enter the market. He continued:

“We are for small family farms and small family businesses. We want everyone to have a chance to compete in the marketplace, but we especially want to give voice to people who don’t have corporate bargaining power and influence.”

Multiple marijuana advocates raised concerns about the open carry provision. Since dispensaries won’t open until 2024, it’s essentially impossible to have a legally “sealed” container of marijuana in Virginia. it would have to remain in store packaging that doesn’t exist yet.

“Keep it in your trunk,” Jason recommended.

Social equity provisions could heal some of the damages of the drug war, such as expunging records and favoring applications for licenses from people with previous marijuana convictions. These don’t go far enough either, according to advocates like Marijuana Justice Virginia:

Progress made for hemp in Virginia too

The hemp industry in Virginia also made progress under recent legal changes.

One of the most significant changes is that hemp growers can no longer face criminal penalties if they accidentally grow hemp with too much THC, a serious concern under current federal laws adopted in 2018.

Hemp became federally legal in 2018 under an amendment to the Farm Act, a massive agriculture spending bill passed that year. The bill removed cannabis from control of the Drug Enforcement Administration, putting regulation of the plant under control of the Department of Agriculture, and tasking the Food and Drug Administration with regulating products like CBD oil.

As of April 2021, the USDA recently released its final regulations for hemp, while the FDA still has yet to release their guidelines for CBD products. Even the hemp regulations will likely be challenged in court by the industry.

In Virginia, Jason and the VHC did succeed in making a major change. Federal regulations say hemp plants need to have less than 0.3% THC, and farmers that repeatedly grow plants that test higher could face penalties. Thanks to statewide legislation, Virginia protects farmers that grow up to 1% THC hemp from penalties, though they still can’t sell products made from that hemp.

“It’s one of the most progressive hemp laws in the country,” Jason said.

Does Virginia marijuana legalization put too much under corporate control?

Current hemp laws seem to illuminate one source of conflict in Virginia, between advocates like Jason and more mainstream pro-cannabis lobbyists like those with Virginia NORML. NORML is one of the best known advocates for marijuana reform, but is sometimes controversial even among people like Jason who support the idea of changing marijuana laws.

Surprisingly, the FAQ on Virginia NORML’s website insists that CBD remains illegal, despite the provisions of the 2018 Farm Act which clearly state otherwise. It’s a bit odd to see NORML side with the DEA here, especially when Congress passed more liberal laws.

It’s true, there are concerns with unregulated and low quality CBD. However, these can be alleviated by buying from quality vendors that are transparent about where they get their CBD and how they make it -- vendors like Anavii Market. While Anavii Market supports sensible regulations of CBD, it’s clearly a legal and safe product under current laws.

Jason told me he suspects advocates like himself and NORML clash because NORML is too closely tied to the big corporations which currently dominate the legal marijuana industry in Virginia and elsewhere.

Under current medical marijuana laws, there are just 4 licensed medical dispensaries in Virginia, which could balloon as high as 400 licenses under the recreational marijuana law. But he’s worried that the current licensed dispensaries might have a leg up on new companies.

NORML is lobbying to change the law so that the currently operating dispensaries, almost all run by out of state “Big Marijuana” companies, could sell recreationally before other companies get licensed. While this might benefit consumers, it would also make it hard for newcomers to catch up to a 3 year head start.

Lack of clarity and limitations could hurt Virginia legalization

Anavii Market’s other founder, Annie Rouse, spoke to hemp and cannabis expert Keith Butler on an episode of her podcast Think Hempy Thoughts. Like Jason, Annie and Keith lamented the limitations of the new Virginia cannabis laws.

One major issue is how sharply penalties climb for people who break the law. For example, legally, Virginians will soon be allowed to grow up to 4 plants. For those who grow more than 4 plants, small civil penalties will apply. However, anyone growing more than 50 plants could face felony charges that include fines up to $250,000 and up to ten years in prison. Similar conditions apply to possession. People caught with over an ounce would have to pay civil penalties, but significant felonies start to apply at a pound or more.

There will be strict limits on some forms of marijuana, too. Home growers and even recreational dispensaries are barred from producing liquid cannabis extracts. Only the medical marijuana industry in Virginia can legally do that. And restrictions on home grows are strict: you can only literally grow in your home, as Keith recalled telling a disappointed friend that wanted to grow marijuana in his office.

Like Jason, Annie and Keith would like to see marijuana treated more like other substances such as alcohol. Even the taxes on marijuana would be significantly higher under the new law than those placed on other legal substances like alcohol.

Next steps for marijuana in Virginia

While it's clear there's room for improvement in the new Virginia marijuana laws, there's also a lot to celebrate. More people will be able to access a plant that benefits both body and mind. And, hopefully, fewer people will go to prison for growing and consuming it in personal amounts.

Jason hopes that as marijuana reform advocates continue to push for change, more people get involved and speak up for the rights of everyday people who want to grow and even sell what they grow.

"There's a monopoly at play here," he warned. "We want to get that information out there to the masses so that, during the next round of negotiations, their agenda is exposed."

Author bio: Kit O’Connell (Twitter: @KitLovesHemp) is a writer and journalist from Austin, Texas. His work has also appeared in Yes! Magazine, the Texas Observer, and elsewhere. He served as Editor in Chief of the Ministry of Hemp from 2017 until 2021.

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