POT PLANTS

Barbara Plitt of Strasburg displays her own version of pot plants outside her front porch on West King Street.

As of July 1, Virginia became the first Southern state to decriminalize the possession of marijuana. But the new law is a bit confusing, and local law enforcement says it takes a clear head to understand what is and isn’t allowed.

The law allows up to an ounce of the marijuana plant known as “pot” to be possessed in public and up to four plants can be grown at home by individuals over the age of 21.

Plants being cultivated must be out of public sight with a label containing the grower’s name, driver’s license/state ID number and that it is for personal use.

Possession of more than an ounce but less than 1 pound is a civil penalty with a $25 fine. Possession of more than 1 pound is a felony.

While sharing marijuana without receiving anything in return is legal, selling and purchasing marijuana won’t become legal in 2024. Gifting schemes in which marijuana is exchanged for a service or accompanied as a free item when purchasing another item is prohibited.

And while people can use cannabis at home, criminal justice professionals told The Daily that consuming it in public or in vehicles — whether the user is driving or not — remains illegal.

Just like as it is illegal to walk down the street and drink a beer, Front Royal Police Chief Kahle Magalis explained “you can’t walk down the street and smoke a joint.”

“You can’t be hammered drunk, fallin’ out the road. And you can’t be high as a kite walking down the middle of it,” Magalis said. “Those type of situations will be handled the same as they always were.”

Magalis and Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Scott Thompson said they’ve been training their employees to recognize how drug-impaired driving differs from alcohol-impaired driving.

Officers are no longer allowed to pull a car over because they smell marijuana, although a field sobriety test can be performed if impairment is observed.

A blood sample can be taken and tested for marijuana to determine if an individual’s THC levels constitute impairment, Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney John Bell said. Since everybody reacts differently to marijuana and the science is still lacking, he said no specific THC level indicating impairment has been set.

Magalis’ department will not actively search to see if growers are in compliance, since plants should be hidden. If they are visible, his officers will talk to growers to see if there is a way to bring them into compliance.

“Society has determined that some of this has become more permissible,” he said. “That’s how we respond to it.”

The law prohibits seeds from being bought, sold or brought in from other states, it raises the question on how growers are supposed to obtain seeds.

“Quite frankly, we’ve got better things to do than ask where seeds came from,” Bell said.

Although growing four plants is legal, restrictions remain on large scale grow operations, for which violators face steeper penalties at the moment, Bell noted.

“The repeal of Prohibition didn’t automatically shut down all the stills in the hollers,” he said.

Bell noted that marijuana offenses committed before the law change will remain on offenders’ records along with penalties they received. Next year, however, a new law will seal such charges from the public and they will not appear on employee background checks with certain exceptions.

“A change in the law does not wipe away previous law violations,” Bell said.

While Thompson said his department will respond to complaints of non-compliance with the new laws, a higher priority will be tackling the heroin and methamphetamine problem.

Mount Jackson Police Chief Jeff Sterner said the law change will likely result in a slight increase in marijuana usage since more people may be inclined to try it. But as one who never liked smoking, Sterner didn’t endorse the act, saying “those habits tend to lead to other habits.”

Bell noted the risk of more youths trying marijuana, which can impact judgment and other brain functions during an adolescent’s development.

Since the smell of marijuana is not a probable cause for arrests, departments are retiring their K-9s trained to detect the odor. Sterner said he doesn’t understand that because there still could be instances when people are growing more than four plants at home and a dog’s searching skills could help.

“I still think they could be an asset to an agency,” Sterner said. Some of the dogs have had between $10,000 and $15,000 invested in training them.

The Warren County Sheriff’s Office’s drug-sniffing dogs — Gator, Roman and Rose — joined the agency last year without any marijuana detection skills since legalization was likely, according to Warren County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Robert Mumaw.

The Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office did not have to retire any marijuana-sniffing dogs, Sheriff Timothy Carter said. Chase, their narcotics trained dog, is still with them.

Narcotics K-9s with the Front Royal Police Department include Bosco, who was repurposed to receive patrol training while Maverick will hopefully be repurposed into a support role, Capt. Crystal Cline said. Bosco’s patrol training includes tracking, building and “bite work,” or pursuing and apprehending suspects, she said. Since the two dogs can’t be untrained in detecting marijuana, Maverick must be used for something else or retire.

A July 1, Woodstock Police Department Facebook post explained what is allowed with the use of “jazz cabbage.” The department encouraged people to use common sense, saying they don’t “want” to get involved. The department encouraged anyone who needs substance use help to seek it so they don’t end up living in a van by the river.

“Legally, we can’t offer financial advice but we’re moving our retirements into Frito Lay….and frozen Orange juice,” the post concluded with. “Also, last but not least, nothing has changed on the Federal level. Mess around too much and the three-letter bois will probably pay you a visit.”

Contact Charles Paullin at cpaullin@nvdaily.com