Friday was a big day on West Main Street in Salem. A line formed early outside the door of the RISE Salem medical marijuana dispensary. Meanwhile, cars jammed its parking lot and drive-thru.
The dispensary even called in a Roanoke food truck, Butta and Moon, to handle an expected influx of new business.
Some customers were no doubt regulars stocking up on medicine for the holiday weekend. But the big reason that RISE saw a sudden surge in traffic Friday had more to do with a change in state law.
As of July 1, Virginia medical marijuana patients no longer need to register with state regulators before they can buy legal weed from a licensed medical dispensary. (They still need a prescription, or certificate, from a health care provider who’s registered with the commonwealth to prescribe cannabis.)
Now, patients can take their prescriptions directly to the dispensary and get weed. As of Friday, the least expensive variety RISE sold was $50 for 3.5 grams.
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In terms of access to medical marijuana in Virginia, this is a huge difference compared to last year, when patients had to pay $50 to the Virginia Board of Pharmacy merely to register, then wait weeks until the board issued their medical marijuana cards, before they could even attempt to buy legal weed.
Many of those cards got lost in Third-Class mail, and the board was inundated with complaints and pleas for reissued cards, said Ashley Allen, a vice president for legal and regulatory affairs at Columbia Care. It operates dispensaries in Richmond and Eastern Virginia.
Jack Page, one of the founders of Dharma Pharmaceuticals (which owned the Salem dispensary until Dharma sold out to another company) told me that as of Thursday, there were at least 5,000 Virginians who already had medical marijuana prescriptions who were anxiously waiting for their Board of Pharmacy registration to be processed.
Beginning Friday, that wait was over, and those folks flooded RISE and other dispensaries. (The Board of Pharmacy is still processing documents for patients who want an actual card.)
“I think it’s amazing that patients can come see me, and take their certificate [the prescription] directly to the dispensary,” said Rikki McConnell, the nurse-practitioner/owner of The Hybrid Clinic, in Stewartsville. She’d been considering filing a lawsuit over the delay in issuing registrations.
But it’s not quite that simple. McConnell still advises some patients, such as people on probation, to obtain a card, because that can serve as a form of legal protection during a run-in with police. The same applies to medical marijuana patients who travel to other states.
Some states offer medical-marijuana reciprocity to card-carrying patients from other states, McConnell said. In those states, patients could face arrest for possession if they fail to have a card in their possession.
“There’s still so much gray [in the law] that it kind of bites,” McConnell added.
Delta-8 THC products to be banned?
That’s hardly the only gray area in a regulatory framework that’s still evolving. Another has to do with Delta-8 THC products, which are widely sold as candies, gummies or other snacks in smoke shops, gas stations and convenience stores. Those may soon be illegal in Virginia.
Delta-8 THC, which is synthesized from hemp, is similar to Delta-9 THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. But effects from Delta-8 are milder.
State law used to distinguish between the two — and only Delta-9 was specifically prohibited. But another regulatory change is threatening to ban candies, gummies, or snacks that contain Delta-8.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued a press release Thursday that noted VDACS and the Virginia attorney general were “initiating efforts” to prohibit the sale of over-the-counter products containing any kind of synthetic THC, including the Delta-8 isomer.
Tyson Daniel, a Roanoke attorney and owner of Virginia Cannabis Lawyers PLLC, said clients have been flooding his phone with questions about whether they should pull Delta-8 THC products from their shelves.
“I’m not advising them to pull [Delta-8] products off the shelf,” Daniel told me. “I’m advising them to seek counsel with me, rather than roll over on something for which there’s no specific statutory authority.”
It sounds like a lawsuit may be in the works over Delta-8 products.
Recriminalization for large amounts
Another change in the law limits the amount of marijuana one may possess in public. Used to be, an adult could possess a couple of ounces legally. And possessing up to a pound was a mere $25 civil infraction, so long as it wasn’t packaged for redistribution. (Selling recreational weed in any amount remains illegal.)
In the 2022 budget bill, Virginia lawmakers recriminalized possession in public of more than 4 ounces of pot up to a pound. That’s now a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine on a first offense, and six months in jail on subsequent offenses.
The old setup was a boon for small black-market operators. They could drive to Washington, D.C., and purchase a pound of legal weed from any one of its delivery services for as low as $120/ounce.
Though they risked felonies for reselling it, there was a substantial reward. Weed on Virginia’s black market can go for $300 per ounce — a gross profit of almost $2,900 per pound. Now those operators risk arrest for merely transporting that much weed in Virginia.
Home cultivation regulations relaxed
There was some better news in the budget bill for folks who are growing cannabis at home. Virginians are allowed to grow up to four plants, per house, for personal use. That has not changed in the law, but other aspects of home-growing have.
Under last year’s law, four plants could easily put growers over the legal weight limit for possession, because it’s easy to harvest a couple pounds of weed from four plants.
This year, lawmakers added language that clarified possession of cannabis for personal use in the home is not subject to penalty, according to the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.
The General Assembly also relaxed requirements that homegrown plants be invisible from the street, and that growers tag their plants with their names and driver’s license numbers. Failure to do either used to be a potential felony; as of Friday, those are misdemeanors.
It’s also worth noting that these laws in all likelihood will continue to change, as the Old Dominion moves toward legalizing recreational weed sales to adults in 2024. For that reason, everyone involved with weed should stay on their toes.
Daniel, Roanoke’s best-known weed lawyer, says he’s overloaded with business. He told me he’d love to have some partners to lighten his workload.
He’s certain there’s no shortage of Virginia attorneys with an interest in the subject matter, he added.