FILE - recreational marijuana, cannabis

(The Center Square) – Marijuana will be legal to possess and use in Virginia starting July 1, but legislation signed by Gov. Ralph Northam does not provide any legal retail access within the state, which means many smokers will still have to break laws to attain it.

Although possession and use will be legal this summer, the law delays commercial cultivation, transportation and sale until 2024. This is meant to give the state time to establish regulations for the industry, but it also keeps marijuana in a murky legal area.

In addition to use and possession, a person 21 years or older can legally grow up to four plants at a time and can legally share it with others. The legal code prohibits a person from selling the product or using it to barter and outlaws the gifting loophole used by people in neighboring Washington, D.C.

While marijuana sales are technically illegal in Washington, D.C., a loophole allows businesses to sell overpriced products, such as a sticker or a cookie, and gift the person up to an ounce of marijuana in conjunction with that sale. Virginia law will expressly prohibit any kind of marijuana gifting that is contingent on a separate transaction, which is meant to prevent this kind of loophole.

Even though a Virginian could legally obtain marijuana in Washington, D.C., it would be illegal to transport the product across the border into Virginia.

“The law does not provide guidance on how Virginia residents should obtain cannabis prior to the advent of legal sales,” Matt Simon, a senior legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project told The Center Square. “In reality, most people will probably continue doing what they've been doing until regulated retail stores are established.”

Jenn Michelle Pedin, the director of Virginia NORML, told The Center Square that it seems the main intention is to halt any penalties before legal retail being set up. NORML, which advocates for legal marijuana, will work with the state to expedite the process of legal retail access.

“It’s unfortunate that Virginia is not following the common-sense pathways previously established by other states that have successfully expanded from medical-use to adult-use,” Pedin said. “In the interest of public and consumer safety, Virginians 21 and older should be able to purchase retail cannabis products at the already operational dispensaries in 2021, not in 2024. Such a delay will only exacerbate the divide for equity applicants and embolden illicit activity.”

Republican leaders in the House and Senate have been vocally critical of the bill. House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, told The Center Square that the signed version of the bill will bolster illegal markets before sale can begin.

“The [current] civil penalty is only $25,” Gilbert said. “If people know they can buy it — and possess large quantities of it — with little or no consequences, demand will increase. That means an increase in illicit sales, just as in California. People will become accustomed to buying and selling on the illicit market, where no taxes are collected. When retail stores begin operations, they’re going to be more expensive. Getting the cheaper, illicit cannabis out of the market will require enforcement — arresting people for illegal sales, the very thing we’ve been told is racist.”

Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, told The Center Square a person can make about 60 joints with one ounce of marijuana, depending on the size of the joints. If possession of this much marijuana is completely legal, he said it will be very difficult to enforce the prohibition on sales.

McDougle said he opposed the legislation altogether, but that the state should have held off on legalizing possession before legal retail sales.

One of the primary sponsors of the legislation, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, did not say how Virginians could legally access marijuana this year when The Center Square reached out for comment, but her office forwarded a statement on the bill. 

"By repealing the prohibition on simple possession of marijuana this year, Virginia has removed a tool and taken a step in the right direction towards ending the over-policing of Black and Brown communities, but the work to ensure economic justice before legal sales begin is not yet finished," McClellan said. "The legal sale of recreational marijuana in Virginia will not begin until July 1, 2024 though Starting July 1, 2021, the bill allows home cultivation of up to 4 plants per household. The next step is structuring the commercial market in a way that centers social equity and redressing the social harm that has punished Black and Brown Virginians for generations."

Staff Reporter

Tyler Arnold reports on Virginia and West Virginia for The Center Square. He previously worked for the Cause of Action Institute and has been published in Business Insider, USA TODAY College, National Review Online and the Washington Free Beacon.