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Advocates Rejoice as Marijuana Becomes Legal in Virginia

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AP Photo / Steve Helber
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The prohibition against marijuana is drawing to a close. As of Thursday, pot will be legal in Virginia.

For advocates pressing for legalization of marijuana, July 1st, 2021 has been a date on the calendar with particular significance. For them, it's the culmination of years of determination in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Jenn Michelle Pedini at Virginia NORML says the end of prohibition is an extraordinary victory.

"Public policy will finally have caught up with public opinion when it comes to cannabis in the Commonwealth," says Pedini. "Virginians have long been calling for the end of prohibition, and in 2021 their voices are finally being heard."

Marijuana is now legal. But only in small amounts.

"Possession of over one ounce by adults 21 and over can result in a $25 civil fine, and the penalties are greater for those who are underage," Pedini explains. "Possession over one pound is a felony."

That's a disparity that troubles advocates who worry that the disproportionate policing in the war on drugs will continue after marijuana is legalized. Although they applaud the new law, they also say it should be viewed as a first step.

"This is one step to eliminate the racist policing around simple possession," says Chelsea Higgs Wise at Marijuana Justice. She says lawmakers need to legalize marijuana for any amount, and if they don't they're leaving the door open to the same kind of disproportionate policing that led to legalization in the first place.

"People are still incarcerated for larger amounts than one ounce, and Virginia is making a way to profit off of pounds of marijuana while really ignoring and neglecting a lot of folks that have lost their lives and their families to the enforcement of marijuana that has been disproportionately on Black Virginians," explains Higgs Wise.

Commercial sales won't begin until 2024, and many of the details about how the new industry will work have yet to be ironed out. The General Assembly still needs to figure out how the licenses to manufacture and sell marijuana will be distributed and who will get them. Paul Seaborn at the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia says this is a rare opportunity for lawmakers to shape the creation of a new industry.

"It is quite rare for a new industry to just show up somewhat suddenly," Seaborn says. "But I think Virginia has had the opportunity to watch and learn from other jurisdictions across the country and maybe even some other countries, so there's a lot more familiarity with what the options are and what the possibilities are than when a state like Colorado first went down this path or Washington."

For example, lawmakers are considering giving preference to people who have been convicted of possessing marijuana or are living in neighborhoods that have been disproportionately policed. Seaborn says some states have allowed thousands of licenses while other states have limited it to a handful. Currently, Virginia is considering allowing 400 retail locations.

"They did sort of end up in a Goldilocks situation, I think, where they're not at the super high end and they're not at the super low end," explains Seaborn. "They're somewhere in the middle. But just as a point of comparison, the city of Denver has just over 400 storefront licenses. And that's in a state of about half the population of Virginia and one city within that state."

One of the most controversial decisions lawmakers still need to make is what kind of worker protections exist for the newly created industry. House Democrats want to build in new protections against worker misclassification and union busting. That could end up being one of the key debates of the 2022 General Assembly session.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.