Why Searching ‘Dispensaries Near Me’ is Unique in Virginia Compared to Other Legal Cannabis States

Virginia cannabis laws

Virginia has embraced cannabis reform in recent years, legalizing it for medical and recreational use as of 2021. But what exactly are the laws around cannabis in the Old Dominion State? Despite being a legal cannabis state, searching “dispensary near me” looks a little different in the state of Virginia.  Let’s break it down.

For personal use, adults 21 and over can legally grow up to four cannabis plants per household and possess up to one ounce of cannabis flower. While public consumption is still considered bad etiquette, it’s no longer illegal to smoke cannabis outdoors or in other public spaces in Virginia.

However, you can’t just buy cannabis from a store or dispensary…yet. Selling cannabis for profit remains illegal in Virginia for the time being. Instead, adults can only gift small amounts to one another at no cost. Driving under the influence is also still very much illegal, just like with alcohol.

So where can medical marijuana patients and recreational consumers actually acquire cannabis legally in Virginia right now? Unfortunately, no licensed recreational dispensaries exist as of early 2024, except for the handful of operating medical dispensaries.

Visitors traveling through Virginia and searching for “dispensaries near me” will find limited medical cannabis dispensary options, along with numerous small hemp stores or tobacco and vape shops that only sell hemp-derived products by law.  

One final medical dispensary license is set to be awarded in August 2024 to a qualified cannabis company for the underserved Shenandoah Valley region. This will ensure statewide medical access while Virginia continues working to set up its legal recreational market and sales system.

Virginia Medical Dispensaries 

As of early 2024, there are a total of 22 licensed medical cannabis dispensaries operating across Virginia. These are run by multi-state operators like Cannabist, gLeaf, Rise, and Beyond Hello.

However, one region of Virginia still lacks a single medical dispensary to serve its patients – Health Service Area 1 in the northwestern part of the state. This area encompasses the cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton, Winchester, Charlottesville, and Fredericksburg among others with no “dispensary near me” option.

As one of the few vertically integrated hemp companies in Virginia, Pure Shenandoah, is applying for the final remaining medical cannabis license up for grabs in HSA 1. If awarded in May 2024, Pure Shenandoah would become the first Virginia-based company authorized to cultivate and sell medical marijuana products in the state.

So what exactly are Health Service Areas? 

Virginia is divided into five HSAs that section off the territory for medical marijuana providers (Pharmaceutical Processors) to operate dispensaries within. 

When Virginia legalized the production of CBD and THC-A oil for patients with intractable epilepsy, the Board of Health was tasked with dividing the state into designated HSAs. 

Only one Pharmaceutical Processor license is allowed per HSA, and Pharmaceutical Processors may operate up to five additional dispensing locations within their assigned HSA (for a total of six retail locations per Pharmaceutical Processor license). 

The HSA framework is unique to Virginia, as Pharmaceutical Processors can only sell directly to patients via dispensing locations in their designated region, with the exception of delivery. 

This map shows which HSA your city or town falls under:

Pure Shenandoah currently operates within Health Service Area 1, which covers a wide range of counties and towns from Winchester down to Fredericksburg, through Charlottesville, and up the Shenandoah Valley. It’s the only HSA currently without a single operating medical cannabis provider, forcing patients to travel hours to dispensaries in D.C. or Richmond.

HSA 1 patients are out of luck when searching “dispensary near me” and have to resort to other marijuana sources or long distance travel for medical marijuana.  

According to the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority, medical patients are obtaining marijuana from other sources due to high medical prices and inconvenient dispensary locations, with approximately 90% of VA medical patients obtaining cannabis from sources other than Virginia’s medical market. About 57% of medical patients grew cannabis at home, while 65.2% received it from friends or family.

Why isn’t there a Medical Dispensary in HSA 1? 

The previous company awarded the HSA 1 license back in 2020 had it revoked by the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority due to delays in construction of their medical cultivation and dispensary facilities. That opened the opportunity for newcomers like Pure Shenandoah to apply.

How to get a medical card in VA

To legally access Virginia’s medical cannabis program, you’ll need to register with the Board of Pharmacy as either a Registered Patient for Cannabis Oil or a Registered Parent/Legal Guardian of a patient.

The first step is obtaining a valid written certification from a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant registered with the Board of Pharmacy to recommend medical cannabis. You can find a list of registered practitioners on their website.

Once you have that written certification, you can apply for your medical cannabis registration online at https://www.license.dhp.virginia.gov/apply/. This secure website walks you through the registration process.

You’ll need to apply specifically as either a “Registered Patient for Cannabis Oil” if you are an adult patient, or a “Registered Parent/Legal Guardian of Cannabis Oil” if you are the parent or guardian of a minor patient.

After submitting the required documentation like your practitioner’s certification and proof of Virginia residency, the Board will review your application. If approved, you will receive a medical cannabis registration card in the mail valid for one year of legal medical cannabis purchases.

The application fee ranges from $50 to $100. With this card, you’ll gain access to Virginia’s operating medical dispensaries to obtain cannabis oils, topicals, edibles and other products recommended by your practitioner.

What’s the difference between Medical and Recreational marijuana?

While medical cannabis and adult-use recreational cannabis both derive from the same cannabis plant, they represent two distinct state-regulated categories with some important distinctions in how they are obtained, used, and regulated. Understanding these differences is key for patients and consumers in Virginia.

At its core, medical marijuana refers to cannabis products recommended by a licensed physician specifically for treatment of qualifying medical conditions and symptoms. These medical products go through rigorous testing and are regulated to meet stringent safety and quality standards.

Recreational or adult-use cannabis, on the other hand, is meant for consumption by adults 21 and over without requiring a doctor’s recommendation. It is intended strictly for personal, non-medical use. Recreational products may have different potencies and formulations compared to medical items, and generally lack the same level of rigorous testing.

A major difference lies in how the two categories are sold and distributed. Medical cannabis can only be obtained through state-licensed dispensaries after registering with Virginia’s medical program and receiving a certification from an approved practitioner. Recreational marijuana sales, when eventually permitted, will occur at separate licensed adult-use retailers specifically for non-medical purchases.

From a consumer perspective, medical dispensaries tend to have a more clinical environment staffed by trained personnel who can provide guidance and product recommendations tailored to a patient’s specific condition and treatment needs. In contrast, recreational cannabis stores will likely have more of a commercial retail feel focused on product selection, potency, and effects desired by adult consumers.

Taxes are another key distinction, with medical cannabis patients generally paying fewer or no taxes on products recommended by their doctor compared to recreational consumers whose purchases will be subject to standard excise taxes.

A common misconception is that there are major chemical differences between medical and recreational products. In reality, both categories are often relatively high in THC and low in CBD, although medical dispensaries may offer a wider variety of formulations including high-CBD options to meet diverse patient needs.

While Virginia has legalized cannabis for both medical and recreational purposes, as of early 2024 only the tightly regulated medical program infrastructure is active with operating dispensaries across most of the state. Regulatory plans for a legal adult-use recreational market are still proceeding through the approval process.

Medical Vs Recreational Marijuana Uses

Let’s take a look at some examples of medical or recreational “uses” of marijuana: 

Medical Uses of Marijuana:

  • Treating chronic pain (the most common reason)
  • Alleviating anxiety, insomnia, and depression
  • Managing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Stimulating appetite in cases of anorexia and weight loss
  • Relieving symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Providing relief for inflammatory bowel diseases
  • Assisting with substance use disorders
  • Treating traumatic brain injury
  • Managing symptoms of Huntington’s disease
  • Relieving symptoms of Parkinson’s disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease treatment

Recreational Uses of Marijuana:

  • As an alternative to alcohol consumption
  • For spiritual or mindfulness practices
  • Enhancing motivation and recovery for exercise
  • Stress relief and relaxation
  • Inspiring creativity
  • Enhancing mood for fun social activities

What makes a quality dispensary?

  • Excellent customer service
  • A knowledgeable staff
  • A rewarding loyalty program 
  • Seed to sale vertical integration
  • Locally grown cannabis 

When it comes to selecting a cannabis dispensary, whether for medical or recreational purposes, there are several key factors that separate a truly excellent option from an average one.

First and foremost is exemplary customer service from a highly knowledgeable and educated staff. Cannabis product knowledge is absolutely crucial, as a lack of staff education can easily result in consumers walking away with products too potent for their needs or experience level. This can lead to uncomfortable experiences that could turn people off cannabis entirely.

The importance of low-dose cannabis for most consumers cannot be overstated. Dispensary staff should be well-versed in “start low and go slow” principles, making recommendations aligned with an individual’s experience, needs, and physiology. A quality dispensary empowers its employees with robust cannabis education.

Another element that elevates a dispensary is a thoughtful customer loyalty program that rewards frequent shoppers and helps build a community around the business. Feeling valued and having a sense of familiarity makes the shopping experience that much more enjoyable.

From a product perspective, the highest quality dispensaries are vertically integrated operations that handle the entire seed-to-sale process in-house. This allows for complete quality control over cultivation, manufacturing, lab testing, packaging and retail.

When a company manages the whole pipeline from plant growth to product production, it ensures locally-grown cannabis processed to exacting standards free from unnecessary additives, fillers, or contaminants. Vertical integration is a major distinguishing factor for clean, safe, and effective cannabis products.

While vertically-integrated companies require more resources, the value passed onto consumers is well worth it. As the saying goes, you want to know your cannabis products were made “the right way, every step of the way” without any unwise shortcuts.

So whether for medical or recreational use, the top dispensary options prioritize outstanding customer education, build true loyalty, and provide seed-to-sale vertical integration for unmatched product quality and transparency.


Virginia cannabis is a budding market 

Virginia is developing regulated medical and recreational cannabis markets, providing exciting opportunities. The well-established medical program ensures rigorously tested products for registered patients, while the upcoming recreational system will allow more open adult-use access with reasonable guidelines.

Top dispensaries prioritize quality, investing in vertical integration for locally-grown, pure cannabis and robust staff training for personalized consumer guidance. As more licenses get awarded, Virginians will see increased competition, variety and customer-focused retail experiences across both markets.

While recreational cannabis isn’t finalized, Virginia is progressing towards convenient, equitable adult access aligned with public health. Cannabis offers therapeutic and recreational benefits when properly regulated, positioning the state as a model for sensible cannabis policies balancing safety and personal freedoms.


Resources 

  • Azcarate PM, Zhang AJ, Keyhani S, Steigerwald S, Ishida JH, Cohen BE. Medical reasons for marijuana use, forms of use, and patient perception of physician attitudes among the us population. J Gen Intern Med. 2020;35(7):1979-1986. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7352011/
  • Cannabis Public Policy Consulting, (2023, November 17). An Examination of the Virginia Medical Cannabis Market: Assessing Patient Experiences & Potential Pathways for improvement. https://www.cannabispublicpolicyconsulting.com/

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