Virginia cannabis law went into effect on July 1, 2021, and in a little over two months since that starting date, the county of Richmond has experienced a shocking decrease in cannabis-related arrests. 

The new law legalizes cannabis possession up to one ounce, as well as cultivation of up to four personal plants per household, but requires that the grower tags their plants with their driver’s license/ID and a note saying that they are being grown for personal use.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, cannabis arrests have decreased by 90 percent in the state’s capitol. During the first seven weeks of the law’s enactment (with data collected from July 1 to August 20), reports show that there were 20 arrests in Chesterfield, two in Henrico, zero in Hanover and three in Richmond for a total of 25 arrests. In July and August of 2020, there were 257 arrests.

“A 90 percent reduction in marijuana arrests indicates that the public policy is performing as intended and in a manner that is consistent with post-legalization observations from other states,” said National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws development director and executive director of the Virginia NORML chapter Jenn Michelle Pedini.

Due to the newness of the law’s enactment, some of the offenders claim to be unaware of what the law does and does not allow. Ten of the arrests ranged between 18 to 20 years of age and were charged with underage possession (which is only a civil penalty). The law states that anyone over age 21 may possess up to one ounce of cannabis, but consuming in public is prohibited. Seven of the 20 people who were charged with cannabis-related arrests were 16 or 17 years old.

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Virginia Clarifies New Law

Chesterfield Police Chief Jeffrey Katz shared that his law enforcement officers haven’t “shied away” from current laws, and that it’s important to arrest people in the name of public safety. While they’re not seeking out cannabis-related arrests, they will make a charge if it’s applicable.

Some of the recorded arrests were for more than just underage possession, though. One individual from Chesterfield was caught growing an estimated 50 cannabis plants and also could not provide the grower’s name or driver’s license to prove that they were permitted. 

Prior to the new law’s enactment, Katz released a statement on Facebook on June 25, along with a Chesterfield County Police educational YouTube video, trying to help the local community understand what the law entails. 

“Virginia, we have a problem. A lot of folks believe that as of July 1, 2021, the possession and use of marijuana is legal within the Commonwealth. In reality, it’s not that simple,” he shared. “We feel an obligation to those we serve to provide a little context into some of the more granular nuances of this widely misunderstood legislation… but even this brief animated summary doesn’t replace an in-depth review of the law as passed. The devil is in the details, as they say… and like all laws passed by our legislature, it is our charge to encourage compliance and enforce violations. Ignorance of the law isn’t a defense, so we encourage everyone to be both informed and safe.” 

Katz isn’t a supporter of the law as it currently stands. He tells the Richmond Times-Dispatch that although possession is allowed, there aren’t any sales fronts for people to purchase cannabis from. Instead, they must either grow their own plants or revert to buying cannabis off the black market. Cannabis sales regulations aren’t expecting to roll out until January 1, 2024, although there are efforts underway to try for an earlier start.

According to New Frontier Data, cannabis-related arrests have been decreasing steadily since 2017. There were an estimated 27,852 total cannabis arrests in the state of Virginia in 2017, 28,866 in 2018, 26,470 in 2019 and a dramatic decrease of 13,674 in 2020.