VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — More than 20 months after legalizing marijuana in Virginia, lawmakers are grappling with a gray area when it comes to cannabis.
A person can have, grow, possess, and share up to one ounce of marijuana, but the state has not established a legal means of acquiring the product for non-medical uses.
This has created a climate where consumers can be confused about the legal status of weed, and illegal avenues such as pop-up shops can occur.
"Some may say, 'Well, we are not selling marijuana. We are gifting it,'" said Sgt. Derek Reed with the Virginia Beach Police Department. "That is still illegal to do."
Reed worked on the police department's narcotics unit for a number of years before switching to patrol. Reed acknowledged police across Hampton Roads have shut down a number of pop-up marijuana shops in the past, and oftentimes it all came down to confusion about the existing laws.
"We'll see they have items for sale like T-shirts, hats, music, anything, and for a price it can be yours," said Reed. "They will exchange an ounce to an individual and then we have to enforce the law, even if they did not know."
As selling marijuana remains illegal, Reed said it can often attract other crimes. In a November 8 sting, the Virginia Beach Police Department said officers confiscated five guns, bags of marijuana, and edibles.
Chief Paul Neudigate tweeted pictures telling people why police officers are proactively enforcing current marijuana laws. He said a large percentage of their robberies and shootings particularly involve illegal marijuana sales.
Neudigate sent us a statement regarding this situation:
"The laws pertaining to marijuana in Virginia are often misunderstood. Though marijuana laws were loosened on July 1, 2021, it is still illegal to possess more than an ounce, to distribute or sell marijuana, and/or to possess any amount of marijuana with the intent to distribute or sell it.
However, for cultivators of the plant, they say there is not enough clarity in the laws to allow people the resources to enjoy recreational marijuana.
Ryan Boyce, the co-owner of Grow VA, said almost every day there is a customer looking to purchase recreational marijuana. The store is not a dispensary and Boyce said they can only educate and sell the products used to grow the plants.
"When we tell them the only legal place to buy it is a medical facility a few miles from here, then they don't know what to do at that point, and so they search," said Boyce.
According to Boyce, this gray area then creates a perfect storm where consumers are uninformed, lack the resources to acquire legal weed, and then are drawn into illegal activities to purchase what would be legal on its own: an ounce of marijuana.
"It's honestly a vicious cycle," said Boyce. "The only hope I think any of us have is to end the confusion and create the legal process to get legal weed."
The process might take longer than Virginians anticipated.
A number of bills were presented to the 2023 Virginia General Assembly to create a retail market for recreational marijuana. However, most were defeated.
Among the legislation that is seeing progress is Senate Bill 1133, which aims to establish a framework for a retail marijuana market in the Commonwealth, beginning Jan. 1. It passed in the Senate, but could still face defeat in the Republican-controlled House.
With no plan set in place for when exactly selling recreational marijuana becomes legal, Virginia Beach Councilman Michael Berlucchi said his city must prepare now.
"As we are right now, we are not prepared, and we need to be," said Berlucchi.
Berlucchi headed an effort to create a "Cannabis Advisory Task Force" whose goal is to provide a roadmap for how retail marijuana could be sold.
"We're hoping to be a regional leader to get us prepared, look at other states on what has worked and what has not, and figure out our own path," he explained.
The task force’s job will be to review state and federal laws related to cannabis consumption, sale, and manufacturing, as well as gather public input and make recommendations to city council regarding zoning and other policies to "protect public safety and quality of life."
Berlucchi hopes that all of these parameters will be determined months before lawmakers decide what the ultimate future looks like before retail recreational marijuana becomes a possible reality.