New laws affecting everything from the intentional release of balloons to legalizing simple possession of marijuana to riding bicycles two abreast on public streets to abolishing the death penalty officially become the law of the Commonwealth on July 1, 2021.
With Democrats in control of both houses of Virginia’s General Assembly and the Governor’s mansion, Virginians will see some significant first-in-the-south changes to Virginia’s code as new laws go into effect this July 1st, along with a laundry list of lower profile but often impactful legislation adopted with broad bipartisan support.
Advocates for fully reopening Virginia’s schools, for instance, will be pleased to know that a new state law requires all local school districts to offer live, in-person instruction five days a week unless that can’t possibly be done safely. That law passed with broad bi-partisan support on an 88-9 vote in the House of Delegates.
An issue that has bipartisan support among the electorate, according to polling, but that passed almost exclusively with Democratic votes, was marijuana legalization. Beginning July 1, Virginians over the age of 21 can legally possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana for personal use. While Virginia has yet to establish a legal framework for a regulated marijuana market place, making obtaining and transporting marijuana legally fraught, a Virginia household is legally allowed to grow up to four plants, provided they are labeled, not in public sight, and out of the reach of anyone underage.
While mass balloon releases may produce fleeting, beautiful, Instagram-worthy moments, they won’t be legal in Virginia anymore. Concerns about the long-term environmental impact, particularly on coastal habitats and wildlife, led the General Assembly to enact a ban on the intentional outdoor release of balloons.
Concern for the environment and long-term health of the planet also led to the enactment of laws that will have Virginia join a number of other states looking to increase sales of electric vehicles. Legislation going into effect this year will require carmakers to sell a certain percentage of electric or hybrid cars.
Mandatory paid family and medical leave is not yet the law in Virginia, but beginning July 1, for the first time, some Virginia businesses will be required to provide paid sick leave to their employees. Employers of home health care workers who work on average of 20 hours per week or 90 hours per month and who provide personal care, respite, or companion services will be required to allow those employees to start accruing leave. This means they won’t have to choose between taking care of their patient or taking care of their own health.
After greatly expanding worker protections from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin and sexual orientation in 2020 with the adoption of the Virginia Values Act, this year the Act was expanded to include Virginians with disabilities as was the Virginia Human Rights Act (VHRA).
Voting continues to get easier in Virginia, as we continue our climb for a ranking of 2nd to last in ease of access to the ballot to number 12 and hopefully soon to the top 10. Local registrars will have the option to include Sunday voting hours during the recently expanded in-person early voting period. Also, starting July 1, it becomes illegal to carry a firearm within 40 feet of a polling place on Election Day.
When driving, bicyclists and drivers should be aware of two new bike laws: one allows bicyclists to ride two abreast in a travel lane and the other making drivers change lanes when passing bicyclists instead of just moving over.
Our neighbor, Arlington County, will have the power to rename its stretch of Lee Highway. And we’ll now be able to remove the statue of Harry Byrd, Sr. that stands in Capitol Square in Richmond.
We’re continuing to make strides in criminal justice reform with Virginia becoming the first state in the south to abolish the death penalty. We also eliminated the so-called “Gay Panic Defense,” which previously allowed those accused of homicide to receive lesser sentences by saying they panicked after learning of the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Local law enforcement agencies and campus police departments will be banned from using facial recognition technology, which will better protect individual’s privacy.
These are just a few of the good bills we passed this year.