RICHMOND, Va. -- As of July 1, Virginia is the first Southern state, 17th overall, to be painted green with the legalization of recreational marijuana – shaving three years off lawmakers original plans to permit it.
Since the move came three years sooner than lawmakers originally planned, there are still many wrinkles to iron out in the legislation -- but it’s something that has been hovering in the halls of Virginia’s capitol building for decades.
Believe it or not, the road the legalizing marijuana for medical use in the Commonwealth started in 1979, according to an article posted by The Baltimore Sun from The San Francisco Chronicle.
Legislators gave doctors the power to prescribe marijuana to treat glaucoma and to help cancer patients cope with the side effects of chemotherapy in an overhaul of the state’s drug laws, the article stated.
Technically, doctors could only recommend the use of the plant – not actually provide it to patients -- and the law didn’t outline a process for how those patients could obtain it.
The 1979 law collected dust until the 90s, when the General Assembly tried to repeal it just as lawmakers in California were working to become the first to legalize it for medical use.
The ball of marijuana-related legislation started rolling through the House of Delegates again with the establishment of a committee in 1997 to study the economic impact of hemp in the state.
According to the Virginia Hemp Coalition (VHC), hemp has been growing in the fields of Virginia's farms since the 1600s.
While genetically related to marijuana, hemp does not have the same level of THC that marijuana does -– that's the chemical that causes the intoxicating feeling and psychotropic effects.
In 2015, Delegate Joseph R. Yost introduced House Bill 1277, which legalized the industrialization of hemp in the Commonwealth.
VHC President Jason Amatucci said the legalization of hemp and the education the VHC provided over the years helped to improve the normalization of the cannabis plant in Virginia, and assisted in the culmination its legalization.
That same year the General Assembly passed House Bill 1445 and Senate Bill 1235, making it easier for Virginians with severe forms of epilepsy to use two oils derived from cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD) and THC-A.
And 2015 was also the first failed attempt to decriminalize marijuana in the Virginia Senate.
Bills from both sides of the aisle continued to make their way into the General Assembly, with many failing – but not all.
In 2017, there was a change to how a marijuana offense affected the suspension of Virginian’s driver’s license and in 2018, Senate Bill 597 expanded upon the legal medical uses of CBD oil and THC-A oil.
Things really started taking flight in 2019.
That’s when Attorney General Mark Herring called for marijuana legalization.
A Cannabis Summit was held in December 2019 to address the issues of cannabis decriminalization and pathways towards legalization through legislative efforts.
Less than a year later, he amended bills that were set to legalize simple possession of marijuana in 2024 – accelerating the process to start in July of 2021.
Northam said he decided to legalize adult-use of marijuana sooner than planned in an effort to address the inequitable enforcement of marijuana laws on Black Virginians -- something that couldn't wait three more years.
Lawmakers approved Northam's changes in April, but not without pushback.
A complex process of creating a new state agency to oversee the marijuana marketplace will also start soon, with sales beginning in 2024.
But many will agree, it's only the beginning.
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