Virginia lawmakers Wednesday promulgated a law to legalize marijuana, making the state the first in the South to legalize cannabis.
By law, adults 21 and older will be able to use and grow marijuana starting in July. The state will also launch a legal and regulated market, with a launch slated for 2024. And it allows people who have already been convicted of marijuana to seek lower sentences or seal their cases.
Revenues from a new excise tax on marijuana will go to education programs, equity initiatives, drug treatment and public health services.
The bill came after a controversial, but relatively rapid legislative process. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) publicly supported the legalization of marijuana in November. After some back and forth, Virginia House and the Senate passed bills legalizing the pot in February. Northam responded with approval, but with changes to the legislation. The legislature then approved the changes, allowing the legislation to come into force without further action by Northam.
By comparison, legislative battles over legalizing marijuana dragged on for years in New Jersey and New York.
Virginia already allowed the use of medical marijuana, starting with a 2015 law that has been extended over time. The new law extends legalization to recreational and other non-medical uses.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. But starting with the administration of former President Barack Obama, the federal government has generally allowed states to legalize cannabis with minimal federal interference.
With Virginia law, 16 states and Washington, DC, have now legalized recreational marijuana, although DC does not allow recreational sales. (Voters in South Dakota approved a voting initiative to legalize cannabis in November, but the future of the move is uncertain as it is caught up in legal battles.)
Proponents of legalization argue that it eliminates the harms of marijuana prohibition: the hundreds of thousands of arrests in the United States, the racial disparities behind those arrests, and the billions of dollars that go from the black market in marijuana illicit drug cartels who then consume them. money for violent operations around the world. All of this, advocates of legalization say, will outweigh any potential drawbacks – such as increased cannabis use – that might accompany legalization.
Opponents, meanwhile, say legalization will create a huge marijuana industry that will market the drug irresponsibly. They point to American experiences with the alcohol and tobacco industries in particular, which built their financial empires largely on the backs of the heaviest consumers of their products. And they argue that ending Prohibition could cause many more people to use pot, which could have unintended negative health consequences.
In Virginia, supporters of legalization won the day.
For more on the marijuana legalization debate, read Vox’s explanation.