By Matt de Simone
Last Thursday, cannabis (marijuana) became legal in the Commonwealth of Virginia. While, on paper, Virginians ages 21 and older can grow and smoke “pot,” it doesn’t mean that they can no longer face charges over the narcotic.
The new law states that Virginians ages 21 and older are allowed to possess up to one ounce of cannabis without an intent to distribute it (all in one bag). Additionally, households are allowed to grow up to four plants.
Last year during a General Assembly session, the legislature decriminalized marijuana possession for persons over 21. It provided a civil penalty of no more than $100 for: (a) possession of two and one-half ounces of cannabis or (b) 12 or fewer marijuana plants. Additionally, a civil penalty of no more than $500 for possession of more than (a) two and one-half ounces of marijuana or (b) 12 marijuana plants.
The bill also modified several other penalties related to marijuana. Plus, it established a regulatory scheme for regulating marijuana cultivation facilities, manufacturing facilities, secure transporters, testing facilities, marijuana stores, and microbusinesses by the Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
In other words, Virginia’s new cannabis laws fall in line with bills other states passed in previous years.
One question a local citizen could ask is: What does this mean for Botetourt County?
Botetourt County Sheriff Matt Ward recently stated concern in a recent interview. He feels that the state did not research enough to consider the recent cannabis decriminalization and possession laws.
In his experience, cannabis occasionally relates to criminal activity.
“I don’t have the specific stats for it, but marijuana is regarded as a ‘gateway drug,’” Ward stated. “It’s commonly used with other drugs. These new laws add to the state seemingly taking some of our law enforcement tools away.”
Traffic safety is another concern for the sheriff. No cannabis dispensaries can develop before 2024 (for the moment), but with those businesses comes another element of the cannabis industry—vaping.
The potency level of cannabis oil is much greater than that of the flower. Ward further expressed his concern explaining that “21 percent of car fatalities revealed casualties had THC in their system.”
THC is the psychoactive ingredient/substance in cannabis that gets people “stoned.”
In most plant-based products, the average THC level is approximately 12 percent. Some “hash oils” used for vaping provide an oil comprised of 90 percent THC levels.
“There can’t be a psychological benefit, nor can the potency be beneficial,” Ward added.
Sheriff Ward worries about the consequences, or lack thereof, regarding traffic stops or other encounters.
“Hopefully, we can stay proactive, but if the courts don’t hold persons accountable (when marijuana possession is involved in criminal activity), there are no consequences. If money is the reason behind passing this bill, then I feel money is the wrong reason.”
Virginia’s Department of Forensic Science (DFS) could not comment at the time of publication. Still, Ward wonders if there are plans to create new methods of testing potential “drug drivers.” He feels there will be a 25-35 percent increase in impaired driving based on research from other communities.
Commonwealth Attorney John Alexander expressed some concerns as well regarding traffic safety and driving responsibly.
“What DFS tells us is that cannabis affects motor coordination and reaction time,” Alexander explained in a recent interview. “It doesn’t affect people the same way as alcohol, but it still affects you nonetheless.”
Alexander went on to explain that there is a misconception when it comes to marijuana charges. A person isn’t going to jail over cannabis unless there are “pounds and pounds” involved. In those instances, the large amounts of marijuana tie into large amounts of illegal money.
“Where there’s illegal money, there’s a threat of violence going on in the background,” Alexander added. “The situation is that Virginia decided to legalize marijuana and establish a business tax base to generate revenue. They set up that structure for 2024 and worked toward a comprehensive bill.”
Alexander and Ward both share concern over “edibles”—food containing high THC levels. According to Alexander, evidence has shown that it’s often easy to consume large amounts, resulting in harmful effects.
“Our officers know how to investigate DUID (driving under the influence of drugs) marijuana cases,” Alexander explained. “People need to understand that if an officer suspects a driver is under the influence of marijuana–and that it’s affecting their ability to drive–they can have that person take a blood test, and we will prosecute those cases. Public safety is the number one issue.”
What are the consequences for persons under the age of 21 caught in possession or under the influence of marijuana? That remains to be seen as the General Assembly and its Cannabis Equity Board continue to iron out the details presented in the bill.
Parts of that bill were moved up and passed. Still, while it’s legal to possess an ounce of marijuana, it’s not permitted to sell it or bring it into Virginia from out of state. There’s a lot of “gray areas” to work out.
Right now, Ward and statewide law enforcement departments will wait and see. Part of the new cannabis laws have taken effect, but the legislature won’t flesh out the rest of the changes until 2024. The General Assembly has implemented a “reenactment clause” that allows voting next year to adjust the bill’s framework if needed.