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A new day: With recreational marijuana now legal in Virginia, the Richmond area is gearing up
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A new day: With recreational marijuana now legal in Virginia, the Richmond area is gearing up

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Earl Tillett tells his story

When he was in his early 20s, Earl Tillett took the clothes out of the armoire in his bedroom and retrofitted it into a “grow room.” At the time, it was a mix of curiosity and recreation.

“I was brought up on a farm, and I wanted to grow something. I went from starting off in a greenhouse and my mom tearing my bud up,” said Tillett, now 46.

For the New Kent County resident, who served in the U.S. Army and later lost a leg in an accident, marijuana has become more than a pleasure or hobby: It’s therapy, pain relief and a salve for post-traumatic stress.

For Anah Johnson, 26, getting her hands in the soil to care for a marijuana plant is a way of “reconnecting with my ancestry and culture.”

“Marijuana is an ancestral medicine for Black people,” said Johnson, praising what she describes as the metaphysical properties of the plant. But instead of that legacy being nurtured, she said, marijuana has instead been used to “vilify and target people in the Black community, even though white people smoke just as much as Black people.”

Her hopes of growing marijuana won’t involve expensive tents or light other than what comes from the sun. “I really just want to put them in soil and watch them grow,” said Johnson, a Richmond resident.

Johnson and Tillett will be among the hundreds or thousands of Virginians who hope to grow and harvest their own marijuana, and consume the drug as the state begins a years-long process of legalizing the drug.

Virginia on Thursday became the first state in the South to end its marijuana prohibition, allowing recreational use among adults 21 and older by doing away with penalties for possession and adults’ sharing of less than an ounce. Sales and public consumption will continue to be illegal; so will carrying marijuana in the passenger area of cars. (This week Connecticut and New Mexico also are doing away with criminal penalties for adult possession of small amounts.)

The incremental step in Virginia didn’t appear to be a political reality until just months ago, when lawmakers conceded to the generational shift that has seen the drug enter the American mainstream. Overcoming opposition from Republicans, Democratic lawmakers here say they were driven by the trail of harm caused by the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws.

As the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported this past weekend, Virginia lawmakers have done little to redress people and communities harmed by the criminalization of marijuana — including those who remain incarcerated — as the state stands to make millions off the drug. Civil rights groups also worry that a hastily crafted law could still result in racially disparate enforcement and leave Virginians who don’t understand the subtle legal nuances to face criminal charges.

Even so, consumers and legalization proponents say a new day has dawned on Virginia. Thursday’s move into legalization opens up the possibility for a booming new industry in the state, and the end of social stigma around a drug many Virginia adults have come to enjoy or depend on.

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Legal sales in Virginia won’t kick off until at least 2024, leaving recreational users three avenues to procure marijuana: the illicit market, gifts from other adults, and the harvest of their own plants.

There’s no denying Virginia’s illegal market is already large and thriving, and if interest among Virginians increases, it could continue to grow.

Last year, Virginia had the fourth-largest illicit market in the nation, encompassing about $1.8 billion in sales, or 3% of the estimated $60 billion national market, according to New Frontier Data’s U.S. Cannabis Report.

“Separation of legal sales and legal possession is not unique to Virginia,” said Alena Yarmosky, spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam. She pointed to states that legalized possession before sales, like Washington, Colorado and New Jersey. “For the governor, it was important to end disparate enforcement as soon as possible, although it will likely take a few years to create the regulations needed for sales.”

The Northam administration also emphasized that the law isn’t opening the floodgates to marijuana use, but rather acknowledging its pervasiveness in the state. “We also recognize the reality that people have marijuana now in Virginia,” Yarmosky said.

Outside of the illicit market for the drug, legal businesses that sell products related to marijuana consumption are expected to boom.

I.V. Miller is one of the co-owners of Homegrown VA, a business that opens Thursday in Richmond that is geared toward people hoping to grow marijuana at home. Miller said that when one of his business partners brought the idea to him, he compared it to the gold rush in the American West.

“The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Do you know who got richest out of the gold rush? The guy who owned the general store and sold them all the gear.’ ”

Homegrown VA, located in Scott’s Addition, will become one of the dozens of stores around the state that sell supplies for people hoping to grow marijuana at home: grow tents, soil, fertilizer.

Miller said he has been consuming marijuana for years to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. He said he believes in the plant’s medicinal role, and hopes to develop a community around the business.

“We are hearing from dozens of people every day, and most of them are uneasy. People are shy about it because it’s been a hush-hush thing for so long,” Miller said.

“We’re hearing from people who have been growing for years, maybe decades, and they can come out of the closet. In some ways literally, they’ve been growing marijuana in their closets.”

Miller said the store will start to bring marijuana cultivation and use out into the open. The business plans to open its parking lot to people who want to share marijuana seeds with one another.

“With Virginia’s history of tobacco, this is a natural pivot in this state. Once the stigma wears off a little bit, it’ll be a big boom for Virginia’s economy and culture.”

Other potential entrants in the legal market are waiting in the wings and preparing.

Warren Bloom, who lives in Alexandria, said he has been smoking marijuana since he was a teenager. In partnership with his brother, who lives in California, Bloom has spent the last few years crossing marijuana strains. He works to develop highly exotic strains that “hit all of the points.”

Eventually, Bloom hopes to turn their expertise into a Virginia business. “Our plan is to run a seed bank, and a nursery to sell seeds and babies.” Bloom filed to register a new LLC a few weeks back.

The Richmond-based law firm Gentry Locke said it is already working with clients big and small hoping to tap into the new industry: applicants aiming to receive a license under a provision meant to ensure access for people affected by the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws, large companies lobbying for seed-to-sale licenses and aspiring retailers.

“It started as licensure but it’s moved way beyond that,” said Matt Moran, the firm’s government affair’s director. (Moran was previously the chief of staff for former House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights.)

With Northam’s signature, Virginia becomes first state in the south to move toward legalization of marijuana

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Outside of the business sphere, home cultivators like Tillett said the new legalized landscape could help end the stigma that has seen some Virginians shy away from being open about their use.

“It’s nice to see Virginia get with the times,” he said.

Tillett said that after a 2017 accident that crushed one of his legs and saw the other amputated, he turned to botanical marijuana as a way to manage.

“I went from taking 37 pills, three times a day. I just take blood pressure medicine now,” Tillett said.

Tillett said that four plants per household, the legislature’s home cultivation limit, is likely too few for some users. But, he said, the current law is a step in the right direction.

Tillett said he has welcomed questions from novice growers in Virginia about the ins and outs of growing at home.

“The cannabis industry has a way of pulling people together,” he said. “There are more benefits to this than just getting high and making tax dollars off of it.”

Johnson, a Richmonder also turning to home cultivation, said she hopes to rely on soil, sun and small pots to tap into the benefits of marijuana.

Johnson said she served in the U.S. Navy for five years and trained as a health professional. She said that during that time, her superiors portrayed marijuana as a harmful and dangerous drug, one that could end your career.

After leaving the military and spending time in Europe as a young adult, Johnson had her first real experience with marijuana. She has since become a regular user.

In speaking about marijuana legalization, Johnson was quick to highlight the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws against Black people. Johnson is Afro-Indigenous, and transgender, and said marginalized communities have borne the brunt of the prohibition.

The research arm of the Virginia legislature found that from 2010 to 2019, Black Virginians were nearly four times more likely than white Virginians to be arrested for marijuana possession and convicted of the crime, even though the two populations used marijuana at similar rates.

She said she hopes that by the same token, “marginalized people should be front and center” as the new industry starts to form. And she may become a part of it.

Johnson said she is someone “who thinks big picture.” In the next few years, she wants to expand her cultivation experience and eventually buy land where she can harvest marijuana commercially.

“Had my grandparents been able to navigate this environment the way I can now, and the way white people have, I would have already had that land,” she said. “I would have had it passed down to me already.”

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

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