50 States

50 States: Virginia

By Jon Young

Medical: CBD oil only
Recreational: No
Decriminalized: No

Virginia took an important step toward more sensible cannabis policy in the November 2017 election. Lt. Governor Ralph Northam won the gubernatorial race, and as governor, he pledged to decriminalize cannabis and increase medical access. Northam, a medical doctor and veteran, examined medical cannabis and became "increasingly convinced by the data showing potential health benefits of marijuana, such as pain relief, drug-resistant epilepsy, and treatment for PTSD. By decriminalizing it, our researchers can better study the plant so doctors can more effectively prescribe drugs made from it."

Per his campaign website, he also wrote, "We need to change sentencing laws that disproportionately hurt people of color. One of the best ways to do this is to decriminalize marijuana. African Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia. The commonwealth spends more than $67 million on marijuana enforcement — money that could be better spent on rehabilitation."

Northam will replace Terry McAuliffe, who signed two important bills into law in 2017: SB 1027 allowed for the production and use of low-THC cannabis oil for people with intractable epilepsy, and SB 1091 ended the automatic six-month suspension of driver's licenses for first-time cannabis possession offenders. Judges can still impose such a punishment, but it's not mandatory. 

For a state so far behind the times, it's hard to believe that Virginia technically legalized medical marijuana (MMJ) in 1979, nearly two decades before California passed Proposition 215. Few if any lawmakers knew about it until 1997, however, when the legislature tried unsuccessfully to repeal the long-forgotten law. 

If the state already approved MMJ, why then did The Roanoke Times call for the state to legalize MMJ in March 2017? 

Simply put, the current MMJ only allows Virginian doctors to “prescribe” cannabis to patients who would then acquire it at pharmacies. Federal law prohibits doctors from prescribing a Schedule I substance that is seen as having no medical value—doing so could cost them their license—and pharmacies are not allowed to distribute Schedule I substances. Other state MMJ laws work because doctors only have to “recommend” MMJ, meeting state requirements without breaking federal law. 

It’s no wonder Virginian lawmakers forgot they passed the bill. It was useless.

Then, in 2015, Virginia lawmakers finally passed a bill that allowed for the possession of CBD oil. Despite the bill, patients can still be arrested, just not convicted, and the law gave no legal means to obtain or produce the oil within the state. The signing of SB 1027 helped resolve many of those issues. 

“Providing this medication to Virginians is absolutely the right thing to do,” Sen. Dave Marsden said. “THCa and CBD oils have shown the ability to help alleviate the number and severity of seizures from intractable epilepsy and help so many families live a quality life.”

The passage of the bill was a major victory for CBD advocates in Virginia.

"The fact is this is a southern state. It is a conservative state, but we are on the way. We've made some progress here. It's going to help children. It is going to help families,” said Marsden. "And let me tell you something... The greatest allies I had in this were the families of these kids. They were relentless. They were positive.”

As parents of severely epileptic children watched the Senate vote in favor of the bill, many broke into tears, according to the Washington Post.

Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton’s former running mate, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, remains reluctant in his support for cannabis reform. In fact, he once received an F rating from National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), one of the few Democrats to receive the lowest rank, though he currently has a C+ rating.

“I’ve never been a legalization fan,” Sen. Kaine said in a radio interview. “Just for a whole series of both health and sort of crime-related reasons, I think it would not be a good idea.”

Then, in the same interview on the topic of drug sentencing for low-level cannabis offenses, he added, “I think, often, for sentences for marijuana and marijuana usage, I think some sentences are too strict. These are often, if they’re nonviolent crimes, I think it could be handled in a different way on a sentencing standpoint.”

While many of the politicians still need to evolve on the issue, a majority of the state wants legalization. In a 2017 Virginia poll, Quinnipiac University registered 59 percent support for legalizing recreational cannabis in small amounts, while a Virginia Commonwealth University poll in 2016 found that 84 percent support decriminalizing possession and 62 percent support legalization. 

If America really is a democracy, legalization should come soon to the Old Dominion State. 

Photo credit: Unsplash.


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