Two New Virginia Laws Foreshadow Larger Cannabis Policy Changes

A common cliché for overcoming a difficult obstacle asks, “how do you eat an elephant?” The answer is, “one bite at a time.” In Virginia politics, the tough question facing cannabis policy reform advocates is, “how do you change the minds of political Elephants?” The answer is, “one law at a time.” Although progress in cannabis reform has been slow in Virginia, two recent bills signed by Governor Terry McAuliffe are significant signs that change is coming, and quicker than ever before.

Ending Automatic Driver’s License Suspension for Cannabis Possession

In May 2017, Gov. McAuliffe had a signing ceremony for Senator Adam Ebbin’s Senate bill 784 and Delegate Les Adams’ House bill 2051. These companion bills ended the absolute requirement that Virginians convicted of marijuana possession lose their driver’s license. Until this change, which takes effect July 1, the judge had no option but to suspend, even if the offense was totally unrelated to a vehicle. A driver’s license is necessary in commuter-based economies such as Virginia, where most residents work, attend school, receive medical treatment, or worship outside of their home city, and the public transportation is less then reliable.

Virginia NORML led the lobbying for this bill, and helped sway lawmakers in the General Assembly who were wary of the proposed changes. The legislators were convinced by explaining the law in detail, and highlighting the positive results from allowing individuals to maintain their license for work and education – no extreme rhetoric or exaggeration needed. Ryan Johnson, membership coordinator for Virginia NORML, testified for both pieces of legislation was congratulated by many thankful legislators at the ceremony.


Gov. Terry McAuliffe (VA-D) and Ryan Johnson


Ryan Johnson with Delegate Les Adams (R-16)

“With Virginia NORML’s guidance, I was able to craft impactful testimony, helping pass meaningful legislation that will make a difference for thousands of Virginians,” said Ryan Johnson at Gov. McAuliffe’s ceremony. “I was humbled by how many legislators thanked me for stepping outside of my comfort zone and sharing my story in the 2017 General Assembly.” 


Del. Paul Krizek (D-44), Del. Les Adams (R-16) ,Sen. Scott Surovell (D-36), Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49), Ryan Johnson, Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30)

Watch the video

The new law is a significant step for cannabis policy reform in Virginia for two reasons. First, this is one of the very few marijuana-related criminal justice reforms that advocates have successfully pushed through the difficult, Republican-controlled House subcommittees. Those subcommittees are the sticking point for most criminal justice reform legislation, the bottle neck that prevents bills from proceeding to a full House vote. Second, this is important because it allows judges discretion to apply the standard first-offender’s program and community service to an adult discovered possessing cannabis somewhere completely removed from any vehicles. Admittedly, this is a small step. However, every step, even the very small ones, put Virginia closer to a more sensible criminal justice system that does not criminalize marijuana possession or consumption.

Welcome to the Medical Cannabis States Club, Virginia

In June 2017, Gov. McAuliffe had another bill signing ceremony, this one for Senator Marsden’s Senate bill 1027. This bill is significant because it officially makes Virginia a medical cannabis state. Medical cannabis dispensaries will be called “pharmaceutical processors,” and will become medical cannabis patients’ legal source of the cannabis oil permitted under Virginia law. The processors will be vertically integrated facilities. That means the plants will be grown, cured, and trimmed onsite; all extraction, distillation, and synthesis of custom biopharmaceutical medicines will be done in the on-site laboratory; and, finally, patients will interact with and receive medication from a pharmacist. Unlike the medical cannabis dispensaries in Colorado, this will more closely resemble a traditional pharmacy.

Virginia families were instrumental in getting this landmark legislation passed. However, despite the great success, the law has serious shortcomings. There will only be five (5) pharmaceutical processors. This places a huge burden on applicants, financially and logistically, and could result in the exclusion of start-up ventures owned by minorities, women, and veterans without access to large capital resources. Second, the related laws allowing patient access to medical cannabis is very short: one (1). Only one patient group, those with intractable epilepsy, can possess medical cannabis oil. The major legislative goal for the 2018 session is the “Let Doctors Decide” bill, which would end the eugenics-style creation of state-permitted patient groups and instead allow trained medical professionals to decide if cannabis would be effective for the individual patient’s treatment plan. Jenn Michelle Pedini was at the ceremony representing Virginia NORML, and spoke to the families of several epilepsy patients and lawmakers who had supported the bill.


Sen. Dave Marsden (D-37) and many families watch as Gov. McAuliffe signs historic medical cannabis legislation. Photo courtesy Michaele White, Governor’s Office.

“It was an exciting day for the families who spent hours at the General Assembly gaining support for this bill which passed unanimously in both the House and Senate. We are looking forward to continuing this path next year and expanding the current law to include all patients for whom medical cannabis would provide relief,” said Beth Collins, Senior Director Government Relations and External Affairs at Americans for Safe Access, and mother of a child with intractable epilepsy.

These landmark bills are significant signs of the change coming in Virginia’s cannabis policy. Decriminalization is being studied by the State Crime Commission, following a request by Senate Majority leader Tommy Norment. The Driver’s License bill may be the first overly punitive prohibition measure to fall, and like dominoes, the changes to criminal justice reform will gain momentum and culminate in decriminalization of adult cannabis possession within the next couple years. The pharmaceutical processor bill is a huge hurdle for both patients seeking legal access to medical cannabis medications, and for individuals interested in the regulated cannabis industry. Although Virginia’s cannabis industry will fall under heavy regulation and oversight by the Commonwealth, the new industry presents new opportunities, jobs, and tax revenue.

Virginia NORML is the leading cannabis law reform organization in Virginia, but we can only continue our success in changing outdated laws with your help! The Summer of Change Campaign is currently underway, and we are trying to raise $42,000 to support our efforts in the 2018 session and the push for “Let Doctors Decide.” Virginia has a major election this year, and the outcome could determine the success – or failure – of our efforts. Donate today to the Summer of Change campaign! With your help, Virginia NORML will continue its track record of success in Richmond bringing marijuana policy reform.

13 thoughts

  1. Being a citizen living in Virginia I applaud any effort toward relaxing the idiotic draconian laws we have been forced to live under regarding cannabis.

    I once thought that Virginia would be one of the last places to ever show a bit of common sense on that issue since Virginia Republicans seem hellbent on just locking every one up in private prisons instead of changing the cannabis laws.

    Maybe, just maybe, I won’t have to take my vacations elsewhere (like Colorado) if just a bit more common sense prevails. Maybe I won’t have to move to a place where people like myself (hard working, good neighbor, good driver, never been in jail) can use cannabis in peace.

    As it is, I have feared the law for years and the stress has taken it’s toll in various ways. After all, I’ve heard stories of people reporting breakins and robberies only to get busted themselves when the police get there and find a bit of cannabis; or heaven forbid a live plant or two!

  2. I moved to CO from VA for medicinal cannabis. It would be really nice to go home and visit my family again. Hopefully soon we will be able to travel with our medication, just as a diabetic, or any other patient on medication would.

  3. I hope this progress in Virginia reminds the rest of us in states without voter initiatives how vital and important citizen lobbying is when focused with bipartisan legislation. Our reps cant hear from us if we dont at least sit with their staff face to face and bring the NORML library with us.

  4. I have been listening to many,many people has used cannabis oil for cancer and it has cured their cancer.It may be legal in Virginia but no place to get it legal.

    1. I am a person with stage 3 lung cancer and my body could not tolerate the chemotherapy. Cannabis Oil would help a lot if not cure it,I know the five different strains used for lung cancer,its a shame I will die because of these laws.I am 58.

      1. My father dad at age 68 last year due to these laws of lung cancer I am disabled and in the medical field and I feel that if it will help patience and it will help here their cancer ease their pain then it should be legal

  5. I am encouraged to see Virginia moving forward on the burgeoning medical and scientific application for this plant-based remedy. I am concerned about the vertical integration plans. Not only will this limit business opportunities for Virginia small business owners, it also has the potential to restrict patient access to the best medicine for their treatments. There are years of product development, testing and and packaging of oils, lotions, tinctures and non-plant forms. To expect a dispensary (pharmacy) to grow, process, develop, and package this wide variety of medicines I feel will be restrictive to the patients.

  6. When Virginia allows its citizens to benefit from cannabis use, they will be certain to adopt similar dispensary and production models already being well utilized in Colorado and California. This really isn’t rocket science. Virginian are too smart not to see the benefits legalized medical cannabis brings to our state. We might have to jump through hoops to get what we medically need now, but lets pray that changes in the not too distant future.

  7. When virginia decides to go medical and us the infrastructure of already existing medical structures in other states, is when we’ll see a legit impact throughout the tax revenue and general appreciation and healthfulness the industry provides. That being said, only letting epileptic, and doctor recommened individuals the right to using it legally is literally no greater then %5 of the state……this is progress but does nothing for average citizen trying to acquire a safe medical option legally without paying outrageous co pay’s and insurance bills to be auestioned by someone who probably isnt as knowledgeable in the cannabis facts as your average cannabis enthusiast. Im mainly saying this is a step in the right direction, but its also THE SMALLEST MEANINGLESS STEP YOU COULD TAKE……….us the same infrastructure as california for our medical system or its going to fail big time. Making only 5 licenses cultivators that have to use i house product start to finish disqualifys the ability to acquire famous,highly beneficial, and proven strains to be out of the question. You want to be part of the movement for legalization but your doing it in the most sticks and stones, old school, secular way possible

  8. Summer of 2015 went out with four friends to go see the newest Jason Bourne film in theater’s after we go to a nice restaurant next door to it in Loudoun. We smoked a joint on the way there. The driver was an amateur at pot and he left his window cracked open, and as soon as we entered the parking garage we parked at the closest parking space. Just our luck 5 police officers on bikes smelled the weed and headed our way; we thought we were fine because we already smoked the weed. Later did we know they found little crumbs of residue on the floor of the car. 0.3 grams in total and all four of us got a possession charge. We were so upset we decided to just go home and cancel any further plans on enjoying ourselves. I was so incredibly lucky that I took a semester off of school at that time because by policy if I had any drug conviction I wouldn’t be able to apply for FASFA.

    The courthouse opened my eyes to the institutional problems of our “Justice” system. One of the police officers were basically the entire prosecution. He told his side, he lied to the amateur and told him that he was going to take it easy if he admitted everyone smoked before we got to that garage. He fell for it and it was a police officers word against mine of course you know what the judge decided. Need no explanation but a guilty verdict. Had the option to take the first offenders program but after reviewing how long and the personal and financial cost it would cost I decided it wasn’t worth it. Lost my license almost lost my job because of my ability to get there. It was all to unnecessary for a couple of friends trying to enjoy their summer and spend some money.

  9. We live in VA we go to Vegas and we smoke where it’s legal it helps my pain tremendously. Drs gave me an 85 percent death rate my wish is for VA to legalize I should have the right to be happy everyday I live.

  10. When are our representatives gonna listen to the voters concerning medical cannabis right. An overwhelming percentage of Virginians believe it should be legal. Why aren’t they listening. Time to put people in office that do. I’m tired of being slowly killed with pharmaceuticals for PTSD from war and other maladies.

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