With the backing of Gov. Ralph Northam, Democratic majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, and growing public support, Virginia could well be on the doorstep to legalizing recreational marijuana use.
As the General Assembly session kicks off this week, efforts to legalize cannabis will be front and center. But even if legalization passes, it could take up to two years to sort through the myriad issues – establishing stringent regulations for how and where cannabis is sold, for example, and how it would be taxed – according to a work group established by the General Assembly last year. Indeed, a bill unveiled on Wednesday and authored by the Northam administration would permit retail sales to begin in 2023.
In the meantime, however, medical cannabis use is already legal in Virginia. And it’s gaining acceptance in the medical community as an effective treatment option for everything from chronic pain to autoimmune conditions to seizure disorders.
Last year, the Virginia General Assembly voted to replace the terms “cannabidiol oil” and “THC-A oil” in the state code outlining the commonwealth’s medical cannabis program with the more general term of “cannabis oil.” That change allows dispensaries to sell products with higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the most well-known cannabinoid from the cannabis plant, in addition to cannabidiol (i.e. CBD oil) and THC-A oils, which were previously approved for patient use.
Legislators also agreed to allow each of the state’s cannabis processing facilities to open up to five additional dispensaries to sell medical cannabis products. Virginia currently has medical cannabis dispensaries in Richmond, Portsmouth, Bristol and Manassas. More will likely open later this year.
So what do you need to know if you’re interested in participating in the medical cannabis program? Here are a few frequently asked questions.
Is it legal to use medical cannabis?
THC is scheduled as a controlled substance and is still illegal, according to the federal government. However, the past two presidential administrations have allowed states to set their own laws governing the use of medical cannabis. That trend is expected to continue under the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.
In Virginia, approved patients are legally allowed to possess medical cannabis products without fear of state prosecution.
What medical conditions are eligible for the medical cannabis program?
Any diagnosed condition or disease is allowed.
Virginia Del. Dawn M. Adams, who is a doctoral nurse practitioner and one of the state’s registered practitioners, says most of her medical cannabis patients live with chronic pain or some sort of inflammatory or autoimmune illness.
“I see a lot of people with fibromyalgia and … autoimmune [conditions] such as multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos, and then a fair amount of cancer related pain, and then a lot of [patients with] anxiety and sleep disturbances,” Adams says. “Lastly, [I see] people who have other reasons for chronic pain and who are mostly trying to either get off or stay away from narcotics.”
How do I apply for the medical cannabis program?
The first step is to obtain a written certification from a medical doctor, a doctor of osteopathy, a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner licensed by the state’s medical board.
The following links provide a list of state-registered practitioners who can certify patients for the medical cannabis program:
• dhp.virginiainteractive.org/lookup/index (Scroll down to “occupation,” use the dropdown menu to find “registered practitioner for cannabis oil” and then click “search.”)
“If the practitioner determines that they can benefit from the use of cannabis oil, then they would provide the patient with the written certification,” says Annette Kelley, deputy executive director of the Virginia Board of Pharmacy. “The patient would then apply [for the medical cannabis program] online (license.dhp.virginia.gov/apply/) with the Board of Pharmacy. The patient needs to submit a copy of their written certification and a copy of their proof of age, identity and residency to the board, and then we will process that application. Once everything is in order, we will provide the patient with a registration card.”
There is a $50 registration fee for first-time applicants, and a $50 annual renewal fee. Those fees do not include the cost of seeing a medical provider in order to be certified for the program.
It currently takes about 30 days for the board of pharmacy to approve new patient applications for the medical cannabis program.
There are around 9,000 patients enrolled in the medical cannabis program at this time with about 500 new applications submitted each week, Kelley says.
Where is the closest dispensary to Chesterfield County?
Green Leaf Medical of Virginia opened the Richmond area’s first medical cannabis dispensary in late November at 2804 Decatur St., building 30. For more information, visit gleaf.com/virginia or call 800-484-0303.
State law allows Green Leaf to open up to five more dispensaries in its respective health service area, which includes Chesterfield and Henrico counties. However, the state is still in the process of enacting regulations to govern new dispensaries.
“Those regulations have not yet received final approval from the governor’s office,” Kelley says. “There’s a very detailed process that regulations go through before they receive approval, so those cannabis dispensing facilities cannot open until those regulations are in place.”
What can I buy at the dispensary?
Dispensaries are allowed to sell capsules, sprays, tinctures, oils, creams, gels, lozenges, patches, suppositories, lollipops and inhalation products extracted from cannabis oil. Product selection varies by dispensary.
What documentation will I need to visit the dispensary?
When visiting for the first time, you will need to provide the dispensary with your medical cannabis card, a government-issued photo ID and your medical provider’s certification letter. You will be required to present an ID and your medical cannabis card during each visit.
Will the Virginia General Assembly consider additional cannabis-related laws during the 2021 legislative session?
Currently, all cannabis products sold by dispensaries in Virginia are extracted from cannabis oil. State law does not allow dispensaries to sell the actual plant material, or flower, from cannabis plants, but that may change this year.
“There will be a legislative effort to add botanical cannabis to Virginia’s medical cannabis program in 2021,” says Jenn Michelle Pedin, executive director of Virginia NORML, a nonprofit that advocates for legalizing cannabis. “Currently, Virginia’s program is an extraction-based model. That was a fine place to start. It ensured that we were meeting the needs of our most medically fragile patients, but not every patient needs a highly processed, highly refined product, and in fact, most patients, particularly seniors, are most comfortable with cannabis in its botanical form because that’s what they’re used to.”
There may be bills introduced to address the employment and parental rights of the state’s medical cannabis patients.
“Even though it’s legal for patients to participate in Virginia’s medical cannabis program, they can still lose their jobs, lose their children, lose their housing [and] lose their opportunities for education, including student aid,” Pedin explains.
Last year, Northam signed legislation to decriminalize marijuana possession. As of July 1, 2020, possessing up to one ounce of marijuana is now a civil violation punishable by a fine of up to $25 with no arrest and no criminal record.
What if I need more information about medical cannabis or the commonwealth’s medical cannabis program?
Here are some resources to get you started:
Board of Pharmacy, dhp.virginia.gov/pharmacy/pharmaceuticalprocessing/patients.htm, 804-367-4456
Virginia NORML, vanorml.org
“How medical marijuana works and which conditions it treats,” webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/medical-marijuana-faq
“What medical marijuana works for,” aarp.org/health/drugs-supplements/info-2019/cannabis-for-medical-conditions.html ¦