Will We See Virginia Legalize Adult Use Cannabis in 2021?

The Southern state has taken a huge step in the right direction with its cannabis legalization bill, but critics aren’t as excited about the move.

Virginia to legalize cannabis
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  • Virginia lawmakers have approved a bill that could see adult-use recreational cannabis legalized in the state, with implementation expected to happen in 2024.
  • It has made history as the first Southern state to put in motion full recreational legalization. It follows a decriminalization bill that was ratified in 2020.
  • Once the bill is in place, Virginia will join 15 other states that have legalized adult-use cannabis, which could net the state over $300 million in tax revenue and create almost 20k jobs.
  • House and Senate approval was slim, with no Republican votes for the motion in either chamber, which isn’t at all surprising.
  • Critics say that the delay in implementing the bill will perpetuate racial inequality and have accused lawmakers of acting behind closed doors. House Democrats have defended their decision saying that time is needed to establish a legal cannabis market.
  • Cannabis legalization in other US states has produced positive change — tax revenue has been poured into the economy, black market activity has decreased, and the tourism industry has benefited.

Virginia has made history as the first Southern state to approve a bill that will see recreational cannabis fully legalized for adults in 2024.

Lawmakers, who ratified the legislation in late February, hailed it as a positive move, while also acknowledging its flaws.

“This, to me, is a justice bill,”  Democratic majority leader Del. Charniele Herring said on the floor. “While it has flaws… it’s a step in the right direction.”

It follows a cannabis decriminalization bill that Virginia implemented in 2020. It makes simple possession a civil rather than a legal matter in the state.

Impact of Cannabis Legalization on Virginians 

Adults over the age of 21 will be permitted to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and to cultivate up to four plants per household when the bill is put into effect.

It will also levy a 21% tax on cannabis sales, which could potentially see the state net over $300 million a year and create over 20k jobs.

Revenue from this tax will be used to fund pre-K education and drug treatment programs. A portion of which will also be designated to a Cannabis Equity Investment Fund, which aims to provide scholarships and other initiatives – including priority marketplace licenses – to communities disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs.

Not a Landslide Victory

In as much as this is a historical moment for Virginia, the bill only just managed a majority in both chambers. 

In the House it scraped through with a 48-43 vote, while in the Senate victory was even tighter with a majority of just one.

It seems that, despite Republicans’ initial support for decriminalization, they were turned off by this bill’s aim to promote social and racial equality.

“Initially, I was supportive of the approach that is encompassed in this bill,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Thomas Norment said during a floor debate. “I just don’t accept this social equity set aside on the issuance of licenses.”

“We don’t do it for alcohol, we don’t do it for other matters,” he added.

Critics Respond

Some lawmakers and campaign groups have expressed their concerns following the motion, criticizing the planned delay in implementing the bill. 

Senator Jennifer McClellan (D) expressed her disappointment that the final bill doesn’t include her recommendation to legalize possession by July 1st 2021, adding that the state still has much to do before equality can really be achieved.

“[Virginia has a] long way to go to enact marijuana legalization in an equitable way that redresses the harms of prohibition on Black and brown communities,” she said.

“The bill we passed today moves the ball forward, but let’s be clear: This is not marijuana legalization,” she stressed. “It sets up a framework to get us on a path to legalization in 2024.”

Virginia’s ACLU gave the bill a unanimous thumbs-down even before it was passed, criticizing it for not properly addressing the disproportionate effect that cannabis enforcement has on its minority communities.

“Lawmakers paid lip service to the communities that have suffered decades of harm caused by the racist ‘War on Drugs’,” they said in a statement, citing Virginia’s 3.5 times higher than average rate of Black arrests and incarceration rates for cannabis offences. “[The legislation] falls short of equitable reform and delays justice.”

They urged Virginia lawmakers to reject the bill, labeling it the “product of a closed-door legislative process that has prioritized the interests of recreational marijuana smokers over people and communities of color” and slamming it as a “failure”.

The House Responds

The House has said they are “on a path to an equitable law” with the bill and has defended its decision to delay its implementation. 

Their main explanation for the delay is to allow Virginia enough time to establish a legal cannabis market which, on the face of it, seems sensible but is it reasonable?

When Oregon legalized cannabis in November 2014, the state took only eight months to implement the bill, with Alaska (who legalized at the same time) only taking three months. 

It is true, however, that the cannabis black market problem still thrives in legalized states such as California, which has been attributed to the lack of legal dispensaries – among other reasons.

Avoiding the California problem could very well be one of Virginia’s reasons not to rush through the implementation, but a middle ground can and should certainly be reached. 

Removing the criminal penalties of cannabis possession before full legalization takes place is one move that could be made, but only time will tell what will be decided and there is certainly a palpable feeling that this fight is not yet over.

How Cannabis Legalization Has Impacted Other US States

Adult use cannabis legalization across the many US states has been positive. Colorado and Washington, the country’s first two states to fully legalize all forms of cannabis, have seen a huge spike in tax revenue, job opportunities, tourism, and business, as well as reductions in black markets and unnecessary police arrests.

In 2019, Colorado and Washington collected $300 million and $440 million in tax revenue, which were used to improve infrastructure, homelessness, and academic scholarships. This trend still continues in 2021. 

In the interest of balance, there are some downsides to cannabis legalization, all of which are natural consequences of easy cannabis access. 

In Colorado, hospital visits caused by marijuana-induced accidents rose by 54% between 2013 and 2017. Yearly hospital visits caused by marijuana increased by 101%. Traffic-related accidents while under the influence increased as well. However, there are more deaths on the road as a result of alcohol intoxication. 

Regardless, any DUI is not acceptable and law-enforcement shouldn’t tolerate it, ever. As cannabis advocates, we have the responsibility to show cannabis produces positive change, especially to government officials and anti-cannabis lobbyists who believe the “Devil’s Lettuce” is still an appropriate term.