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Legal marijuana, revoking the death penalty and 16 other laws that go into effect across Virginia on July 1

Just so you know, the minimum fine for littering becomes $500

Virginia will be seeing many new laws covering a wide variety of areas on July 1, 2021.
Virginia will be seeing many new laws covering a wide variety of areas on July 1, 2021. (WSLS 10 / Associated Press)

RICHMOND, Va. – Most of the new laws passed earlier this year by the Democrat-controlled Virginia General Assembly will take effect Thursday, including measures that legalize the recreational use of marijuana, largely ban police use of facial recognition technology and forgive certain unemployment overpayments.

In full control of state government for a second year, Democrats used their majority to pass bills that have further transformed Virginia into an outlier in the South.

Democrats say their policies will help Virginia recover from the pandemic, improve public education and make the criminal justice system more equitable. Republicans warn that the new laws will hamper small businesses, increase energy costs and make families less safe.

Here is a look at some of the year’s notable changes:

Marijuana Legalization

Possession of up to 1 ounce with no intent to distribute will become legal for adults, 21 and older. Adults will also be allowed to grow up to four marijuana plants per household. But it will be years before a legal marketplace to buy the drug is set up.

Death Penalty

Virginia lawmakers voted to end executions, marking a stunning change in direction for a traditionally busy death penalty state. Only two men remained on death row; their sentences will be commuted to life in prison without parole.

Move Over For Bicycles

July 1 biking law changes go into effect
July 1 biking law changes go into effect

Virginia drivers will be required to change lanes when passing cyclists unless the lane is exceptionally wide. Also, two bike riders are allowed to travel side-by-side without having to form single line when a vehicle approaches.

Bye Bye Balloon Releases

Balloon releases will become illegal on July 1
Balloon releases will become illegal on July 1

Balloon releases will become illegal in Virginia. Those who take part in the practice and are 16 and older are subject to a fine of $25 per balloon.

Expanding Voting Access

The biggest of the bills related to voting that Gov. Ralph Northam signed is HB 1968, which now allows localities to be able to provide early-voting on Sundays.

Unemployment Overpayments

A measure from Del. Sally Hudson directs the beleaguered Virginia Employment Commission to forgive overpayments of unemployment benefits due to state or employer error if the recipient is effectively unable to repay. That’s a policy most other U.S. states, including many conservative Southern ones, already have in place. A spokesperson for the commission said those with overpayments will be contacted directly.

Paid Sick Leave

A compromise measure requires employers to provide paid sick leave to an estimated 30,000 home health care workers who serve Medicaid patients. The final version of the bill fell far short of what its sponsor, Del. Elizabeth Guzman, introduced, which would have covered a wide range of essential workers.

Open Container Zones

One measure will effectively allow local governments to seek state approval to create open-container zones for alcohol. The bill expands a code section that previously dealt with special events, permitting localities to seek approval from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority for an “outdoor refreshment area license.”

Facial Recognition Technology

A new law prohibits all local law enforcement agencies and campus police departments from purchasing or using facial recognition technology unless it is expressly authorized by the state legislature. State police are not covered by the legislation.

Littering

Lawmakers increased the minimum fine for this misdemeanor from $250 to $500.

Investigative Files

Criminal investigative files in cases that are no longer ongoing will be made publicly available, with limited exceptions. Families of the victims of the Virginia Beach mass shooting were among those advocating for the Freedom of Information Act reform bill.

Gun Control

Democrats passed five gun control bills this year. Among them are measures that prohibit firearms on the state Capitol grounds and surrounding areas, lengthen the amount of time the FBI has to conduct a background check, and prohibit domestic abusers from purchasing, possessing or transporting a firearm for three years after their date of conviction.

Child Care Stabilization

A bill from Sen. Jennifer McClellan aims to stabilize the child care industry, which has faced tremendous challenges amid the pandemic. The measure will loosen background check requirements, and it establishes a pilot program to test out new parameters for the spending of subsidies. Another child care-related measure that temporarily expanded financial assistance for families passed with an emergency clause, which meant it went into effect immediately.

Coal Tax Credits

One new law will phase out two antiquated and costly coal tax credits that a state investigation found generate economic losses for Virginia.

Gambling Machines

Unregulated betting machines called “games of skill” that have proliferated in locations like gas stations and bars across the commonwealth are on their way out after two years of wrangling over the issue. New legislation will prohibit them July 1. Former NASCAR driver and Emporia business owner, Hermie Sadler, filed a lawsuit against the ban.

There are certainly many more new laws coming. Take a look and see what other bills Gov. Ralph Northam approved, although not all will go into effect on July 1.


About the Authors:

Jeff Williamson arrived at WSLS 10 in March 2016.