The Complicated Path Ahead For Recreational Marijuana In Virginia

The Complicated Path Ahead For Recreational Marijuana In Virginia

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Adult-use cannabis is technically legal in Virginia, but the road to a stable and valid marketplace is still far off.

The story of marijuana legalization is not as cut and dried an issue, to borrow an old tobacco axiom, as many politicians or media members would like to portray. "Legal" and "accessible" are two entirely different concepts in the world of recreational cannabis. Virginia is a fascinating and perplexing case study regarding the process of transitioning from legalizing adult-use marijuana to actually opening up retail dispensaries to the general public.


Recent news reports have begun to document this economic and political minefield as more and more frustration on the part of lawmakers, industry stakeholders and Virginia citizens begins to boil over in the State House and on Main Street.


Recreational cannabis was made legal by the Virginia General Assembly in 2021 and was signed into law by the governor in July of that year. However, unlike other legalization efforts in other states, Virginia's statute seemed to be lacking in many vital areas. The law did allow for the following:

  • Adults 21 and older may possess up to one ounce of marijuana.
  • Adults 21 and older can smoke marijuana privately in their homes.
  • Adults 21 and older can grow up to four plants in their homes.

Nevertheless, the measure did not create any process for legally selling marijuana a la a retail dispensary. Virginia did start its medical marijuana program a year earlier, in July 2020. However, there are only 46,935 registered patients in Virginia, according to data from the State Board of Pharmacy - a tiny number compared to the state's population of 8.6 million people.


Likewise, Virginia has one of the nation's strictest and most highly regulated programs. So, even though citizens technically have legal access to both medicinal and recreational cannabis, the reality of actually acquiring products leaves much to be desired. This confusing and seemingly illogical paradox has many legislators confounded.


As State Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) says, "I think by and large most of the people would like to get it straight. We haven't done it. It's weird that it's legal to possess it, but you can't sell it." Many other lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum agree with his sentiments. As a result, they have promised to take action during the upcoming legislative session.


"I think by and large most of the people would like to get it straight. We haven't done it. It's weird that it's legal to possess it, but you can't sell it."

- State Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax)


However, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) is one wild card in the process. A devout Christian and a potential 2024 presidential candidate, Youngkin's willingness to attach his name and signature to any legislation with the words "legal" and "weed" in it remains uncertain. Like many other state executives grappling with the challenges associated with the cannabis and newly legal hemp industries, Youngkin is more concerned with health and safety and law and order.


When recently asked about the creation of a retail marijuana market, he said, "Right now, we're very focused on making sure the enforcement and consumer protection laws are straightened out with regards to hemp and delta-8, and we're seeing products on shelves that are being mislabeled, and we're seeing products that are targeted towards children."


"Right now, we're very focused on making sure the enforcement and consumer protection laws are straightened out with regards to hemp and delta-8, and we're seeing products on shelves that are being mislabeled, and we're seeing products that are targeted towards children."

- Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin (R)


However, while leaders like the Virginia governor may shy away from talking about establishing stable regulated markets for recreational cannabis, advocates warn that ignoring the issue could have other dire economic and societal impacts. The simple fact is that possessing and consuming marijuana is legal in Virginia, and consumers will purchase products from reputable and regulated dispensaries, or they will find a local dealer on the black market to satisfy their demands.


JM Pedini is the Executive Director of the pro-legalization organization Virginia NORML. He has been tirelessly advocating for legal recreational marijuana in Virginia for years. Moreover, he knows the consequences of not taking action to remedy this massive missing piece to the Virginia legalization puzzle.


In a recent interview, he remarked that the legislature could forge a reasonable path forward on retail sales for adult use or "choose to continue ceding control of cannabis in the commonwealth to unlicensed, unregulated operators. If public safety is an actual priority for either chamber, then they will approve legislation to begin sales at licensed dispensaries as soon as possible."


"(The state legislature can) choose to continue ceding control of cannabis in the commonwealth to unlicensed, unregulated operators. If public safety is an actual priority for either chamber, then they will approve legislation to begin sales at licensed dispensaries as soon as possible."

- JM Pedini, Executive Director of Virginia NORML


One of the sticking points causing a delay in passing the necessary measures to establish a retail market include the inclusion of "social equity" provisions to help make amends to minority communities negatively impacted by the prohibition policing of the past.


Additionally, the contentious issue of whether or not to allow the state's four medical marijuana dispensaries first crack at "transitional" recreational sales and the ongoing questions of how to address best the problems within the legal hemp industry, most notably the "Delta-8 quandary", are also slowing the process.


As with most large, complicated and lucrative challenges, Virginia's legal marijuana situation has no quick and easy solutions. Even if some of the proposed measures were to pass the House and Senate, they would not go into effect until 2024 or 2025. Furthermore, getting the conservative-minded and politically ambitious Governor Youngkin to sign them into law is not absolute.


Hopefully, logic and reason will ultimately win the day in Virginia. As more and more states begin to pass adult-use legalization legislation, economic competition and potential tax revenue may force the hand of leaders like Youngkin to rethink their deliberate and intentionally evasive tactics concerning cannabis.


Like it or not, the almighty dollar is the most crucial constituent in any election or political battle. And recreational marijuana is that multi-billion dollar baby all politicians will eventually have to kiss.