Virginia is legalizing pot, but it won’t be a free-for-all

Virginia became the first Southern state to legalize recreational marijuana Wednesday, as lawmakers voted to approve Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed changes to a legalization bill, speeding up the timeline by three years.

Starting in July, Virginians who are at least 21-years-old will be able to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, but many things will remain illegal for the time being. Selling the drug will still be illegal, and smoking pot in public will not be allowed, either.

Leaving marijuana visible in a car could be considered an “open container,” similar to the laws regarding alcohol. If such a case arises, someone could potentially be arrested for driving under the influence.

“This is not going to generate some ganjafest at Jiffy Lube pavilion out in the parking lot, because that is smoking in public,” Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell said. “Just like you can’t drink in public, you can’t smoke in public under this.”

People will be able to grow up to four plants in their home, but each plant must include a tag with the grower’s name, driver’s license or ID number, and a note that it is only for personal use.

Retail sales aren’t set to begin until 2024, so until then, Virginians will not be able to legally obtain marijuana unless they grow it themselves, or receive it as a gift from someone else who grows it.

Many parts of the bill dealing with the regulatory framework will have to be reapproved by lawmakers next year. The possession and cultivation pieces will not.

Republicans, who overwhelmingly opposed the bill when it initially went through the Virginia General Assembly, railed against the latest version. GOP Del. Chris Head called the bill “a train wreck.”

“The hard-fought compromise that barely made it out of this chamber and over to the Senate has just been discarded. And why is that? It’s because some activists want marijuana legalized and they want it legalized now, consequences be damned,” he said.

For people with marijuana convictions on their record, the new law provides for misdemeanor convictions to be automatically sealed, and people with more serious charges can file a petition to be included in that.

However, it is not clear when records will start to be sealed. That will take some time because the state will first need to update its computer systems.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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