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Laws change, from pot to guns to voting and more

SoVaNow.com / July 07, 2021
Recreational marijuana use, cocktails to go, limits on guns and expanded voter access are among the many legal shifts that Virginians saw July 1 when new laws took effect in the Commonwealth.

Recreational marijuana

One of the most talked-about new laws puts Virginia at the forefront of the debate over the legalization of recreational marijuana. As of July 1, Virginia became the first state in the South to allow adults 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana for private recreational use. Adults can also grow up to four marijuana plants in their home but are required to keep them out of public view, away from children and to clearly label the plants.

The labels must include a statement that the plants are for personal use, and contain the name, driver’s license or state ID number of the grower.

Virginia’s Cannabis Control Act (CCA) also creates the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority and several boards to oversee and implement regulations concerning the commercial cultivation, manufacturing, wholesale, and retail of marijuana in Virginia.

There are several aspects of marijuana use that are still not permitted:

» Under the new laws, anyone who has more than an ounce, but less than a pound, could face criminal charges.

» Distribution or selling of marijuana, consuming, purchasing, or possessing marijuana by or for anyone under the age of 21, and consuming or using marijuana while driving or being a passenger in a motor vehicle are still banned.

» Retail sales of marijuana won’t be allowed until 2024.

Earlier this year, searches and seizures by police based solely on the odor of marijuana were banned in Virginia.

Death penalty abolished

On March 24, Virginia made history when Gov. Ralph Northam officially signed the law abolishing the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The law took effect July 1.

Virginia became the first state in South and the twenty-third in the nation to eliminate capital punishment. Now the maximum punishment for all 15 of Virginia’s capital offenses is life in prison without parole.

Two prisoners who were on the state’s death row in March had their sentences commuted to life in prison.

Virginia has carried out a record 1,390 executions since its formation as a state, and it is second only to Texas in modern-era executions. Virginia also holds the distinction of carrying out the first execution in what would become the United States. It took place in Jamestown in 1608, when Captain George Kendall was executed in for spying.

Besides executing more people than any other state in American history, Virginia has executed the highest percentage of its death-row prisoner population. The last execution in the state was in July 2017 when William Morva was executed for murder.

Skill games ban

Beginning July 1, all slot machine-type games primarily found in gas stations, convenience stores and truck stops and sometimes referred to as “skill games” are outlawed.

As passed, the ban on skill games gives local authorities the power to crack down on the machines. Anyone operating an unregulated skill game machine after July 1 faces a $25,000 fine.

Ahead of the July 1 deadline State Senator Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, filed a lawsuit in Greensville County Circuit Court seeking to enjoin the state from enforcing the law. With no ruling yet from the court, the ban was allowed to take effect on Thursday.

Cocktails to go and outdoor consumption of alcohol

To-go cocktails, made legal during the pandemic to help restaurants stay afloat, will be allowed to continue for another year, unless extended.

Restaurants and farm wineries that offer delivery service can continue to deliver mixed beverages or pre-mixed wine to customers for off-site consumption. Patrons can consume alcohol outside of a restaurant as long as they are in a designated outdoor area.

The newly renamed “designated outdoor refreshment area” license allows localities to increase the frequency and duration of large outdoor events held under this license. Previously, localities were limited to holding no more than 16 events per year under the local special events license.

Virginia ABC stores will stop selling low-alcohol beverages that are 7.5% or less alcohol by volume unless they are made by a Virginia distiller. Beverages that are above 7.5% will continue to be sold in retail stores.

Voting laws

Unlike many states that are enacting new laws to restrict ballot access, Virginia ushered in several laws July 1 that make it easier for people to cast their ballots.

Major reforms were made to Virginia’s absentee voting processes and procedures, including a provision that allows localities to provide in-person absentee voting on Sundays.

Persons with permanent or temporary physical disabilities have the right to vote outside the polling place (curbside voting). During a state of emergency regarding public health, such as the coronavirus pandemic, any voter is entitled to the same right.

Localities must have a tool or equipment that allows voters with a visual impairment or print disability to electronically and accessibly receive and mark an absentee ballot.

Other changes to Virginia’s election laws allow first-time voters to vote absentee, calls for election officials to establish ballot drop-off locations and central voting precincts, to verify correct completion of the voter affirmation statement upon receipt of the ballot and provide the absentee voter the opportunity to make corrections to the statement in certain circumstances.

Officers of Election must also begin counting absentee ballots before the polls close on election day but cannot announce totals before the polls close.

Virginians has moved its statewide primary date to the third Tuesday of June, instead of the second Tuesday. The general election date for local elections will now take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Before the change, six cities and more than 100 towns across Virginia held elections for local officials on the first Tuesday in May every other year.

Education changes

New laws impacting schools include mandates for teachers to receive cultural competency training and for schools to offer in-person instruction to students except during days they have to close for inclement weather or emergency situations. During such times, schools can utilize remote learning so that students don’t miss instructional time.

Under Department of Education rules, school divisions must provide a virtual learning option for those students who prefer remote learning to in-person classes.

Educators will be evaluated on their cultural competency. Those seeking a license or license renewal from the Virginia Board of Education will need to complete cultural competency training with an endorsement in history and social sciences to complete instruction in African American history.

Licensed teachers and school board employees with licenses issued by the State Board of Education must also undergo cultural competency training every two years.

This new law calls for Virginia school boards to enact policies that enforce the mandate and impose the additional requirement that evaluations for teachers, principals and division superintendents include an assessment of their cultural competency.

All public schools, child day programs and certain other programs must now have carbon monoxide detectors in their buildings, even those built before 2015.

Teachers can be granted a temporary, two-year extension of their license if it expires on June 30, 2021.

In collaboration with the Virginia Community College System, a newly adopted program provides financial assistance to certain low-income and middle-income Virginia students who are enrolled in an educational program at an associate degree-granting public institution of higher education that will lead to an occupation in a high-demand field.

Gun restructions

Starting July 1, most people will no longer be allowed to bring a gun, explosive or other weapon to the Grounds of the State Capitol in downtown Richmond. Any firearms or explosives carried in violation of this law are subject to seizure and forfeiture.

The ban also covers the four streets that surround the perimeter of the square, including sections of Bank, 9th, Broad and Governor Street.

Violations are a first-degree misdemeanor, which carries a maximum punishment of one year behind bars and a $2,500 fine.

Firearms are also banned within 40 feet of polling places for the period that begins one hour before polls open and continues for one hour after the close of the polls, and school boards now have the authority to ban guns from buildings owned or operated by the schools.

One of the most contentious gun safety debates of the 2021 session was over a bill to restrict firearm access for those convicted of misdemeanor assault and battery of a family or household member. The person convicted is banned from purchasing, possessing, or transporting a firearm for three years following their conviction.

A new gun permit background check law expands the period from three to five days that a dealer must wait before proceeding with the sale of a gun if the buyer’s background check is not immediately approved.

Solar energy and the environment

One new law clarifies an earlier provision that allows localities to accept cash payments for solar or storage projects from the developer of the project through a conditional use permit provided that such payments offset the impacts of a particular project.

The law also provides that once local officials approve a siting agreement, the solar project is automatically deemed to be in substantial accord with the locality’s comprehensive plan thereby eliminating the need for a 2232 review hearing.

A developer and a locality may provide funding for important local capital projects included in the locality’s capital improvement plan or for deployment of broadband as part of the siting agreement, and the agreement supersedes provisions of a zoning ordinance if agreement is reached between the developer and the locality.

Another law exempts energy storage systems with a capacity between 5 and 150 megawatts from state and local taxation.

Rural counties can now opt-out of erosion and sediment control oversight for renewable energy projects and instead transfers the authority to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. This same opt-out procedure exists in the Code of Virginia for stormwater management.

Energy storage facilities and projects that include storage facility components are eligible for special permitting, review, and inspection requirements. The bill directs DEQ to promulgate initial regulations to implement the provisions of the bill by January 1, 2022.

Another law authorizes localities to establish public green banks to promote investment in and secure financing for clean energy technologies. Green banks are generally defined as public or quasi-public financial institutions that use public funds to attract private investment to clean energy projects. The programs blend public, commercial and philanthropic money to fund projects as diverse as solar, energy efficiency, battery storage and green transportation.

The maximum fine for littering or dumping trash increased from $250 to $500 and the intentional release or discard of non-biodegradable balloons was banned as of July 1, with punishments starting at a civil penalty of $25 per balloon. The ban also applies to those causing the release or discard of balloons. The previous law prohibited the release of 50 balloons or more within an hour.

Law enforcement

Execution of search warrants by law enforcement is limited to the hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. unless a judge or a magistrate authorizes it for another time for good cause.

Labor and employment

Virginia employers must now provide overtime compensation for all employees, regardless of whether they are salaried or paid hourly, who work in excess of 40 hours in a week. Employers who fail to pay at least 1.5 times the employee’s regular rate in overtime compensation is subject to the same criminal and civil penalties as for nonpayment of wages.

Discrimination on the basis of disability is now deemed an unlawful discriminatory practice under the Virginia Human Rights Act. Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations to the known physical and mental impairments for an employee and shall not take any adverse action against an employee who requests or uses such accommodation.

Employers are forbidden from discharging, disciplining, or discriminating against an employee for the lawful use of cannabis oil pursuant to a written certification issued by a practitioner for treating or eliminating symptoms of the employee’s diagnosed condition or disease. However, employers may still take action against an employee for work impairment caused by the use of cannabis oil and establish policies that prohibit possession during work hours, and other restrictions.

Health care providers, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, law enforcement officers, and correctional and regional jail officers who died or were disabled by COVID-19 between March 12, 2020, and December 31, 2021, are entitled to compensation under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

Miscellaneous

This law extends the sunset date for portions of the rent relief program adopted during the 2020 Special Session. The provisions that have been extended include changing from five to 14 days the amount of time that a landlord must wait after serving written notice on a tenant notifying nonpayment of rent before the landlord can seek termination and requiring a landlord to offer the tenant a payment plan before terminating a rental agreement due to nonpayment of rent.

Any person working for a pet shop, dealer or commercial dog breeder cannot have a previous conviction of animal cruelty. The new law also prohibits pet shops from selling or giving for adoption a dog without first obtaining a signed statement from the purchaser or adopter that they have never been convicted of animal cruelty.

Another new law that took effect Thursday aims to remove honors for Confederates and segregationists and authorizes the removal of the statue of Virginia governor and U.S. Senator Harry Byrd Sr. from Capitol Square in Richmond.

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