RICHMOND, Va. (Oct. 20, 2020) – On Saturday, Virginia became the 34th state with legal medical marijuana sales when its first dispensary opened despite ongoing federal prohibition. But the commonwealth didn’t follow the typical path to legalizing medicinal cannabis.

Dharma Pharmaceuticals celebrated its grand opening on Saturday. The medical marijuana dispensary is located at an old Bristol mall. According to WCYB, it is one of four pharmaceutical processors approved by the state to produce medical marijuana.

Patients receive authorization from a certified medical provider and then register through the state to obtain a medical marijuana card. Individuals issued a card can legally buy, carry, and consumer medical-grade cannabis. But up until Saturday, there was no place to legally buy medicinal cannabis.

Lisa Smith was the dispensary’s first client. Her daughter suffers from Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy. Smith said cannabis reduced her seizures by as much as 40 percent. “She went from really just existing, to really living,” she told WCYB.

Virginia’s medical marijuana program has slowly evolved with incremental regulatory change. Over time, the state broadened the definition of products cannabis patients can obtain and possess. According to Marijuana Moment, “Organizations like NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project now consider the state to be the 34th in the U.S. to meet its definition for having an effective medical marijuana system.”


Virginia legalized medicinal cannabis oils in 2015, but only for patients suffering from seizures due to intractable epilepsy. Although the program was extremely limited, the passage of that law set the foundation for future action.

In 2018, the state expanded the program to allow physicians to recommend medicinal cannabis for patients suffering from any condition.

Two 2019 bills were key to opening the door to the state’s medical marijuana program. One allowed medical marijuana patients to designate another person to act as their registered agents for the purposes of receiving medicinal cannabis. This made it easier for patients in rehabilitation centers, hospice, or those physically unable to drive to obtain medical marijuana. The law also expanded the pool of people authorized to perform marijuana cultivation-related duties. This opened the door to medical marijuana production and sales. The second bill authorized licensed physician assistants and licensed nurse practitioners to issue a written certification for the use of medicinal cannabis.

Passage of the 2019 laws represented further expansion of the law. The opening of a bonafide dispensary brings the process to fruition, facilitating a fully-functioning medical marijuana program.

The history of medicinal cannabis in Virginia demonstrates an important reality. In the past, some activists have actively opposed limited measures such as the initial 2015 medicinal cannabis law in Virginia arguing that they don’t go far enough. But once a state puts laws in place legalizing cannabis, they tend to eventually expand. As the state tears down some barriers, markets develop and demand grows. That creates pressure to further relax state law. Passing bills that take a step forward sets the stage, even if they aren’t perfect. Opening the door clears the way for additional steps. You can’t take the second step before you take the first.


Under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) passed in 1970, the federal government maintains complete prohibition of marijuana. Of course, the federal government lacks any constitutional authority to ban or regulate cannabis within the borders of a state, despite the opinion of the politically connected lawyers on the Supreme Court. If you doubt this, ask yourself why it took a constitutional amendment to institute federal alcohol prohibition.

Despite federal prohibition, Virginia has legalized medical marijuana. Gov. Northam also signed a bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of cannabis earlier this year. These moves remove layers of law punishing the possession and use of marijuana in the state, even though federal prohibition remains in effect. This is significant because FBI statistics show that law enforcement makes approximately 99 of 100 marijuana arrests under state, not federal law. When states stop enforcing marijuana laws, they sweep away most of the basis for 99 percent of marijuana arrests.

Furthermore, figures indicate it would take 40 percent of the DEA’s yearly-budget just to investigate and raid all of the dispensaries in Los Angeles – a single city in a single state. That doesn’t include the cost of prosecution. The lesson? The feds lack the resources to enforce marijuana prohibition without state assistance.


Virginia joins a growing number of states increasingly ignoring federal prohibition, and nullifying it in practice.

Colorado, Washington state, Oregon and Alaska were the first states to legalize recreational cannabis, and California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts joined them after ballot initiatives in favor of legalization passed in November 2016. Michigan followed suit when voters legalized cannabis for general use in 2018. Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana through a legislative act in 2018. Illinois followed suit in 2019.

With 34 states including Virginia allowing cannabis for medical use, the feds find themselves in a position where they simply can’t enforce prohibition anymore.

The lesson here is pretty straightforward. When enough people say, ‘No!’ to the federal government, and enough states pass laws backing those people up, there’s not much the feds can do to shove their so-called laws, regulations or mandates down our throats.

Mike Maharrey

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