Virginia lawmakers on Wednesday enacted a marijuana legalization law, making the state the first in the South to legalize cannabis.
Under the law, adults 21 and older will be able to use and grow marijuana, starting in July. The state will also launch a legal, regulated market, with an expected launch in 2024. And it lets people with past marijuana convictions request lower penalties or for their records to be sealed.
Revenue from a new excise tax on marijuana will go toward education programs, equity initiatives, addiction treatment, and public health services.
The legislation came after a contentious, but relatively quick, legislative process. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) publicly backed marijuana legalization in November. After some back-and-forth, the Virginia House and Senate passed bills legalizing pot in February. Northam responded approvingly, but with amendments to the legislation. The legislature then approved the amendments, allowing the legislation to take effect with no further action from Northam.
In comparison, legislative battles over marijuana legalization dragged on for years in New Jersey and New York.
Virginia already allowed marijuana use for medical purposes, starting with a 2015 law that has been expanded over time. The new law expands legalization to recreational and other nonmedical uses.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. But starting with former President Barack Obama’s administration, the federal government has generally allowed states to legalize cannabis with minimal federal interference.
With Virginia’s law, 16 states and Washington, DC, have now legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, although DC doesn’t allow recreational sales. (South Dakota voters approved a ballot initiative to legalize cannabis in November, but that measure’s future is uncertain as it’s caught up in legal battles.)
Supporters of legalization argue that it eliminates the harms of marijuana prohibition: the hundreds of thousands of arrests around the US, the racial disparities behind those arrests, and the billions of dollars that flow from the black market for illicit marijuana to drug cartels that then use the money for violent operations around the world. All of this, legalization advocates say, will outweigh any of the potential downsides — such as increased cannabis use — that might come with legalization.
Opponents, meanwhile, claim that legalization will create a huge marijuana industry that will market the drug irresponsibly. They point to America’s experiences with the alcohol and tobacco industries in particular, which have built their financial empires in large part on the backs of the heaviest consumers of their products. And they argue ending prohibition could result in far more people using pot, potentially leading to unforeseen negative health consequences.
In Virginia, legalization supporters have won the day.
For more on the debate over marijuana legalization, read Vox’s explainer.