FAQs: Virginia’s new marijuana laws

Recently there have been a lot of updates regarding the legalization of marijuana in Virginia, but many residents still don’t understand the specifics. These frequently-asked questions can help you understand the changing landscape:

Is marijuana legal in Virginia now?

Not yet. The Virginia General Assembly voted to legalize marijuana in Virginia, but it won’t take effect until July 1, 2021. As of now, retail sales of marijuana will not begin until January 1, 2024.

However, marijuana has been decriminalized in Virginia.

What does decriminalization actually mean?

Possessing small amounts of marijuana is still illegal in Virginia, but the maximum penalty has changed. Residents caught with one ounce (or less) of marijuana will receive a $25 civil fine. This is a large shift from years prior. In 2018 there were 29,000 arrests for marijuana possession, and 127 people were being held in jail solely on a marijuana charge.

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So as long as I have less than one ounce, I can’t be arrested?

Not necessarily. You can still be charged with felony distribution if caught with paraphernalia that shows an intent to distribute, such as baggies or a scale.

Are there marijuana laws that haven’t changed?

Absolutely. It’s still illegal to grow the plant, and possessing more than an ounce of it and/or distributing it to people (even as a gift) is still considered a felony. These charges can land you in jail for anywhere from one to forty years, depending on the circumstances and amount of marijuana possessed.

If I had a past charge, will it be sealed from the public?

This one is tricky. Lawmakers have instructed the Virginia State Police, who control the state’s Criminal Record Exchange, to seal past charges. The new law also makes it a misdemeanor for most employers (including schools) to ask applicants to disclose past convictions on applications. However, these new restrictions don’t necessarily make past records impossible to access. Court records remain public, so even if job applicants aren’t required to disclose past infractions, it wouldn’t be difficult for employers to glean this information from the courts.

Will police still focus their enforcement on marijuana possession?

If someone is pulled over for a traffic violation, and the police officer believes they smell marijuana in the vehicle, they will still have the right to search the car. The penalties for any marijuana found would be determined by the new law. Some officers may not want to pursue the new marijuana laws as aggressively, since hemp, which looks like marijuana, is now legalized. Officers would have to subject the substance to a $10 field test to prove that the substance is in fact marijuana. A $10 field test for a $25 fine may lead officers to shift their focus elsewhere, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the law.

What about the K-9 drug unit?

The Virginia State Police say that new dogs entering their narcotic detection program will no longer be trained to detect marijuana. However, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Dogs currently on the force are trained to detect marijuana, and will continue to alert when they sense they drug. There will likely be a slow phase-out as new dogs are trained and old dogs retire, until all drug dogs focus solely on narcotics.

Is there a way to obtain marijuana legally?

Yes. The state of Virginia has a medical marijuana program open to qualified residents. There are a handful of dispensaries in the state, which are run by licensed providers. Patients may acquire a maximum 90-day supply of cannabis oil or tincture. New legislation in 2020 has allowed for five more dispensaries to open in the state. Patients must bring a valid, government-issued ID, their medical cannabis card issued by the Virginia Board of Pharmacy, and a printed copy of their unexpired written certification. Patients are not allowed to bring their spouses, children or other visitors into the dispensary, unless they are registered as well.

How can I apply for a card?

You must first schedule an appointment with a licensed practitioner to evaluate your needs. Your primary care physician is a good place to start, but if they are not registered with the Board of Pharmacy for the medical cannabis program, you may find an alternate practitioner here. If you have obtained a formal certification, then you can begin the application process here. Fees do apply.

Is oil or tincture the only form of medical marijuana in Virginia?

No, SB1557 clarifies that “any formulation” (with a dose of up to 10 mg of THC) may be dispensed. While oils and tinctures are standard for the moment, patients can soon expect capsules, sprays, creams, lozenges, patches, troches, suppositories, lollipops and inhalation products. Flower (or the actual marijuana plant) is not legal.

In short, it’s best not to have a false sense of freedom or security with regards to the decriminalization of marijuana. It is still illegal, and many marijuana laws from prior to the July 2020 decriminalization have remained unchanged. As with any controlled substance, be sure to never get behind the wheel or operate heavy machinery while under the influence. A better understanding of the law will help you better follow it.