On Thursday, July 1st, simple possession of marijuana will become legal for adults 21 and over in Virginia. Home cultivation of up to four plants will also be legalized, as well as “adult sharing” without remuneration. These small steps are just the beginning of what will be comprehensive marijuana reform — by 2024 we will have established a regulatory framework for the legal sale of cannabis within the Commonwealth of Virginia to those 21 and older. This initiative will be led by a new Cannabis Control Authority of Virginia, and I will be participating as a member of the oversight board, appointed by the Speaker of the House.
This legislation is remarkable for the Commonwealth on many levels. It is a historic milestone — we are the first state in the South to legalize possession of marijuana — but more importantly, this is intended to “prioritize social equity, public health and public safety,” as is stated on the state website on cannabis legislation, https://www.cannabis.virginia.gov/
First, let’s discuss how the legalization of marijuana will address social equity in Virginia. Historically, the criminalization of marijuana has disproportionately been used as a pretext to target African American individuals and communities. For example, a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) found that “Black Virginians have been 3.5 times more likely than white Virginians to be arrested for marijuana possession, and 3.9 times more likely to be convicted, even though both populations used marijuana at similar rates.”
As we know, criminal charges have an enormous impact on an individual’s ability to participate fully in society. Decriminalization and now the legalization of cannabis possession and use will do away with these racial disparities, thus creating a more equitable future for all Virginians. To address historic inequities, one thing the legislation plans to do is seal approximately 60,000 criminal records of prior marijuana misdemeanor offenses so that those formerly convicted are no longer blocked from many job, housing, and educational opportunities. Additionally, the Cannabis Control Authority will incorporate equity and diversity into all facets of its dealings to ensure that taxes from marijuana sales are especially used to benefit the health and wellbeing of Black communities in Virginia.
It may seem counterintuitive to think that legalizing marijuana is a public health and safety initiative, but that truly is the case. Think of the Cannabis Control Authority as the equivalent to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (more commonly known as ABC). This group will be working with public health experts (advised by a Health Advisory Council) and local leaders to create a regulation that promotes safe cannabis use. For example, they are already planning initiatives to prevent youth access and increase public awareness of how adults can use the drug safely. A 21% tax on marijuana sales will enable these public health efforts by funding substance abuse treatment and prevention, pre-K programs, and public safety programs.
Of course, there are still many lingering questions about how this process will go. The first step is on July 1, when possession, home cultivation, and adult sharing of cannabis are legalized. From then until 2024, when the sale of marijuana will be legalized, there are many kinks to work out and a regulatory framework to craft. It is unclear if social consumption of marijuana will become the norm, like hookah bars. It is also unclear if employers will proceed with drug testing — as of now, it is illegal for most federal employees to use marijuana even if it is legal on the state level.
Another complication is the need for drug testing for motorists under the influence of marijuana. Unlike alcohol, there is no breathalyzer test for cannabis but driving under its influence is illegal.
Many of these questions were raised recently, and covered in this paper last week, when the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber hosted a discussion via a virtual meeting. I participated in that dialogue which included the Governor’s policy advisor and cannabis legalization expert, Megan Field, and Jacquelyn Katuin from the Commonwealth’s Homeland Security. The bottom line is that the legalization for adult use and the creation of the new state authority to regulate the industry that begins this week on July 1 is just the start. We will have to reenact the bill again in the next General Assembly session, and the Cannabis Control Authority will complete the regulatory scheme, implement a social equity program, and then issue business licenses for growers, manufacturers, and retail outlets. There will continue to be plenty of opportunities for the public to weigh in and provide legislators like me your thoughts, concerns, and ideas.