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Virginia and Cannabis, Setting the Record Straight

Virginia and cannabis
Written by Sarah Friedman

When it comes to Virginia and cannabis, Virginia didn’t see any big changes with the last US election. This is because the state had already decriminalized cannabis earlier this spring, and expanded on its own medical legalization policy this past summer. However, there’s one other thing when it comes to Virginia and cannabis, something that’s often misunderstood. Virginia was actually the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana, back in 1979.

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Was Virginia really first?

Indeed it was! And it went through with practically no buzz at all. In 1979, Virginia did an overhaul of its drug laws which included the inclusion of the use of cannabis medicines for people specifically suffering from glaucoma and cancer. The medical legalization allowed patients with these illnesses to receive the medications, but wasn’t expanded on past that point for many, many years. In fact, it wasn’t until 2017 that the bill was finally expanded to include more conditions and generally looser policies. It was updated yet again in the summer of 2020.

So, what happened to the bill? Not much. The issue with legalizations is that they don’t come compact with finished frameworks for regulation. They merely state the decision to change the legality of a specific thing. Once the status is changed, especially when a former black-market product becomes a regular market product, there has to be some kind of setup for how it’ll work. Will it be taxed, at what rate, and by what entity? How can it be used exactly, and where? Are there age restrictions? What’s the cost, and is there a cost ceiling? Where can the product come from, and what are the regulations for producing it?

cannabis decriminalization

These things and more must be figured out, and if they aren’t, the legalization is open to much debate in court, apart from the fact that it stymies the ability to have an operational industry. For years the law sat, practically unknown to the Board of Medicine, attorney general, or court system in general.

To say that it passed quietly is true, but this didn’t stop its near repeal two decades later. In 1996, upon California’s debate to legalize cannabis for medical use, Virginia suddenly became more aware of its own cannabis standing, and there was a major political fight that made it look like the bill would be repealed. One of the issues that led to this attempt to repeal, was that the law as it was written, allowed any doctor to recommend cannabis use, not just doctors in the state. It was probably written like this originally, because no other state had a legalization policy. In the end, it wasn’t repealed, but that didn’t mean much.

Why did no one hear about Virginia and its new-age cannabis policy back in the late 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s? Because it just sat there. No body to oversee anything, no laws on the books. Just a legalization that hung out there, essentially doing nothing. And barely being noticed until California did its thing.

How are California and Virginia different?

When people say that California was the first to pass a medical cannabis bill, in a way it is true. Virginia was the first state to allow any kind of cannabis use medically, but that was really a part of a much bigger bill. Sort of an afterthought to it.

California, on the other hand, crafted a bill specifically for the use of cannabis in medicine. Called the Medical Use of Marijuana Initiative (or, The Compassionate Use Act), not only was it a bill centered around medical marijuana use specifically, but it was a ballot measure which was voted in by its people through Proposition 215. Virginians never knew that their laws were tweaked to allow medical cannabis use in 1979, it was never put out there for them, voted on by them, or explained to them in any way.

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For California, it wasn’t a tiny add-on to another bill, but rather its own. In that way, California was most certainly the first US state to craft and pass its own medical cannabis bill, centered on cannabis, and about medical cannabis only. For anyone who thinks this makes it the first cannabis legalization, this would be incorrect, and it goes back to Virginia earning that title. Unfortunately, the title meant very little as the state dragged its feet to institute the policy.

Where else can this be seen?

Mexico is a great example of this right now. In 2018, the country legalized recreational cannabis use through its court system, which forced the legislative system to come up with laws to match the judiciary system. The laws were due out quite some time ago, but for various reasons have been postponed repeatedly, with the current date not until the spring. This leaves Mexico in a weird legal limbo. Some things like selling and trafficking are always illegal (and don’t require new legislation). Other things like use and possession are more fluid. How much a person has and what they’re doing with it, could mean the difference between a jail sentence, paying a fine, and nothing at all. The world has been watching Mexico and waiting for the outcome, for Virginia, there were no eyes on it, and so a suspended animation was created for decades with no movement.

States like New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota, and Montana are in the same boat. All four just changed their legalizations policies for medical, recreational, or both, in the last election, meaning they have new laws, but no framework yet to use them. The idea is always to get the regulations hammered out quickly so as not to maintain a system where there is legal ambiguity. After all, if someone gets arrested for an act now that has technically been made legal, but which has no actual laws to govern it, it creates a gray area that can be argued extensively in court.

Virginia today

Post elections, it was announced that the governor of Virginia was pushing for an adult-use recreational policy. When states like California, Oregon, and Maine went legal, it wasn’t a huge surprise, but Virginia would be the first southern state to legalize marijuana, highlighting a major shift in overall thought regarding cannabis policy.

The south and cannabis

Virginia is a southern state, with a cannabis decriminalization policy that was signed by the governor in May 2020, and went into effect July 1st. The law (SB2 and HB 972) decriminalizes up to an ounce of cannabis. Virginia can swing red or blue, and like other states – both north and south – has both a strong conservative and liberal foundation. When looking at the other US locations that have legalized for recreational use, they all have one thing in common, they are not in the south, and have generally stronger liberal bases. There have been more medical legalizations in these states (West Virginia has one, Mississippi just voted one in), but many of the holdout states like Georgia and South Carolina (no medicinal legalization, recreational legalization, or decriminalization measures), are in the south.

Virginia is not the only southern state to decriminalize. It joins Mississippi, which decriminalized small amounts of cannabis in 1978; and Missouri which decriminalized up to 10 grams in 2014. But, if Virginia actually passes a recreational cannabis measure, it’ll be the first southern state to do so.


When it comes to new cannabis legalization measures, there are many firsts, and not all of them are terribly impressive. Virginia could have been a massively trailblazing state, but instead passed a huge legalization measure for the time, and then essentially went and took a nap for two decades. When it comes to Virginia and cannabis, it’s a story of not just the overall change in legalization policies, but the idea that such policies are reaching down to places that have been holding onto their marijuana illegalization laws very tightly. Just the fact that the legalization passed in 1979 says something, just like Virginia being one of only a few states in the region to consider cannabis legalizations of any kind. If Virginia legalizes cannabis recreationally, it’ll go back to being the first. In this case, the first southern state to break away and change course.

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I look stuff up and and write stuff down, in order to make sense of the world around. And I travel a lot too.