When the clock struck midnight to mark the start of Thursday, history was made—marijuana legalization had finally arrived in the southern United States.

As of July 1, adults 21 years and older in the Commonwealth of Virginia can legally use and possess marijuana. The new law stems from legislation that passed in the Virginia legislature back in April and was promptly signed by the state’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam.

The law makes Virginia the first southern state to end the prohibition on recreational pot use.

It initially appeared that Virginians would have to wait years for the new law to effect, but the timeline was expedited at Northam’s urging. The state-regulated marijuana market, however, will not open for business until January 1, 2024.

According to local television station WSET, state lawmakers will tackle “the rules for growing and selling marijuana” as well as enforcement of the new law when they reconvene for next year’s legislative session.

After signing the legislation in the spring, Northam characterized it as part of an effort toward “building a more equitable and just Virginia and reforming our criminal justice system to make it more fair.”

“What this really means is that people will no longer be arrested or face penalties for simple possession that follow them and affect their lives,” Northam said at a press conference at the time. “We know that marijuana laws in Virginia and throughout this country have been disproportionately enforced against communities of color and low-income Virginians.”

According to NORML, the new law in Virginia permits “adult sharing” of “up to one ounce of marijuana or an equivalent amount of marijuana products between persons who are 21 years of age or older without remuneration is permitted under the new law,” but that provision does not include “instances in which marijuana is given away contemporaneously with another reciprocal transaction between the same parties; a gift of marijuana is offered or advertised in conjunction with an offer for the sale of goods or services; or a gift of marijuana is contingent upon a separate reciprocal transaction for goods or services.”

As of Thursday, the new law also allows Virginia adults to cultivate as many as four plants per household, though it does require “that no marijuana plant is visible from a public way without the use of aircraft, binoculars, or other optical aids, and that precautions are taken to prevent unauthorized access by persons younger than 21 years of age,” according to NORML.

Advocates in Virginia Are Fighting to Change the Law

Despite the achievement, marijuana advocates in the commonwealth are not ready to rest on their laurels. The Virginia Mercury reported on Thursday that, advocates in Virginia are already aiming to move up the 2024 start date for retail sales.

“Our priority in the 2022 legislative session is to expedite retail access for adult consumers, both through already operational medical dispensaries and by moving up the date VCCA can begin issuing new licenses,” said executive director of Virginia NORML Jenn Michelle Pedini, as quoted by the Virginia Mercury.

The new recreational marijuana program is overseen by the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority, which has stressed that no marijuana sales will be legal prior to 2024. Until then, the agency said, “it remains a crime to sell any amount of marijuana.”

“The law will create a new, independent political subdivision (“an authority”) to regulate the marijuana industry, including issuing licenses for businesses, creating health and safety guidelines, and promoting diversity within the industry. The Cannabis Control Authority can begin its work on July 1, 2021. It will not complete marijuana regulations or begin accepting applications for businesses before 2023,” the agency explained on its website.

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