With Virginia’s marijuana legalization legislation now if effect, the state now has the most lenient cannabis possession laws in the country.
It is now legal for adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana in public. This, in itself, rankles with Republican lawmakers in Virginia, none of whom voted to legalize cannabis, but some are especially concerned at the light penalties in place for possessing much greater amounts.
The new law states that possession of more than one ounce is “subject to a civil penalty of no more than $25,” while possession in public of one pound or more remains a felony offense that could result in up to 10 years in prison. Whether a person can legally have a pound or more of cannabis at home isn’t covered under the legislation.
Fifteen states have already legalized marijuana, all of which permit possession of at least one ounce of cannabis, with three more (New York, New Mexico and Connecticut) following suit this year. However, Virginia will be the only one where possession of a pound of cannabis – the equivalent of between 688 and 1,344 joints, according to a 2011 study – is not a crime. What’s more, the maximum civil fine of $25 is the lowest in the country. In Colorado, by comparison, possession of between 1 and 2 ounces is a petty offense subject to a maximum fine of $100, while 8 ounces or more is considered possession with intent to distribute.
State marijuana laws, of course, vary wildly around the country but the overwhelming majority, including states that legalized or decriminalized the plant, treat possession of one pound of cannabis as an offense punishable by jail time. Forty-seven states, to be precise. Meanwhile, the next lowest maximum fine for possessing one pound of cannabis is $500, which is in place in six legal states.
Virginia moved to legalize cannabis this year after Gov. Ralph Northam made the measure a legislative priority for his administration, with the support of state Attorney General Mark Herring. A congressional report commissioned by the governor on the issue of marijuana criminalization found Black Virginians were 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than their white counterparts, despite comparable usage rates.
In their urgency to combat this disparity, some GOP lawmakers, including the Republican candidate for governor Del. Kirk Cox, believe the legislature and executive have acted too quickly. More broadly, however, a lot is still to be worked out regarding legal marijuana in Virginia. The adult-use industry isn’t set to launch until summer 2024, while the rules and regulations that will govern the legal market are yet to be determined and approved by the General Assembly.