After almost six years of tiptoeing around medical cannabis and decriminalization, Virginia appears poised to take the plunge into legalization of the recreational use of marijuana. On February 5, 2021, the General Assembly passed two bills that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana and is currently working to reconcile the differences between those bills. As Governor Northam supports legalization, it appears that there is a good chance marijuana will be legal in the Old Dominion in the near future, a previously unthinkable development in what was historically a conservative state. If successful, Virginia would become the 16th state to legalize recreational marijuana.
Both the House version, HB 2312, and the Senate version, SB 1406, come on the heels of reports issued in November by the Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (“JLARC”) study on marijuana legalization and the Governor’s Virginia Marijuana Legalization Work Group. Both bills would create the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority (“VCCA”), giving it regulatory authority and oversight, and would allow retail sales beginning on January 1, 2024. The bills would establish a regulatory scheme for the cultivation, manufacture, testing, and retail sale of marijuana and marijuana products, as well as tax rates for marijuana sales.
Both bills address social equity by providing support and resources to communities that have been disproportionately affected by drug enforcement. Further, both bills build on 2020 legislation that decriminalized simple possession (less than one ounce) by legalizing simple possession and automatically expunging certain marijuana convictions. Under the House version, automatic expungement would occur no later than July 1, 2026, whereas in the Senate version automatic expungement would occur no later than July 1, 2022 (with a few exceptions), and simple possession would be legalized in July 2021.
Under the Senate version, localities could prohibit retail sales if a voter referendum supports prohibition. Additionally, under the Senate version, localities may adopt ordinances fixing hours during which retail marijuana and marijuana products may be sold. Other key differences are that certain provisions of the Senate version do not become effective unless reenacted by the 2022 Session of the General Assembly. The Senate version also calls for a statewide, nonbinding referendum in November 2021 to gauge public support for legalization of recreational marijuana.