A raft of new laws, including gun control and marijuana decriminalization, take effect Wednesday in Virginia — the work of the first Democrat-led legislature in more than two decades.
Democrats enacted hundreds of laws in this year’s General Assembly to address a wide swath issues such as allowing local governments to remove statues, expanding protections for the LGBTQ community, no longer requiring photo ID for voting and raising the age limit for purchasing tobacco products.
“Democrats have been in the minority in Richmond or a divided government situation in Richmond for so long that they are finally doing things that they have wanted to do for so long,” said Jeremy Mayer, associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
Mr. Mayer said the new gun control measures could stir a backlash among conservatives and the gun lobby, motivating them to support candidates who are more gun-friendly in future elections. Among the commonwealth’s new gun laws:
• Universal background checks are mandatory for all gun purchases.
• Authorities may temporarily remove firearms from a person deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others.
• Local officials can ban guns in public places.
• Residents may purchase only one gun a month.
Other new laws enacted by the Democrat-led General Assembly:
• Simple possession of marijuana will be subject to a $25 civil penalty. Currently, it is punishable by a $500 fine and jail time.
• The Virginia Values Act bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment and public accommodations. In related legislation, conversion therapy for minors has been banned, and officials have made it easier for residents to change their names and gender on birth certificates.
• Women no longer will have to wait 24 hours or undergo an ultrasound and counseling before getting an abortion.
• Lee-Jackson Day will no longer be observed as a state holiday, and Election Day will be observed as one. Lee-Jackson Day has been observed on the Friday before the third Monday in January for more than 100 years in honor of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Mr. Mayer said one of the most notable laws going into effect Wednesday will end the practice of suspending an individual’s driver’s license for unpaid court fees.
A 2017 study by the Legal Aid Justice Center found that 977,000 Virginians had their licenses suspended for failure to pay court debts, and data suggested that Black people disproportionately have their license suspended for nonpayment.
“It’s going to change a lot of poor people’s lives,” Mr. Mayer said.
He said working-class people cannot easily come up with $300 for court fines and rely on their cars to get to work, so suspending their licenses can cause a “cascading poverty” trap of fines.
The legislature raised the age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21, which Mr. Mayer called an “interesting step.”
“They can join the military, become adult films stars, but they can’t legally buy tobacco,” he said. “While I think it is a good motive to reduce smoking, we as a society are so schizophrenic about when adulthood begins.”
Increasing the state’s minimum wage to $9.50 per hour was approved this year, but will take effect on May 1, 2021. The wage then will rise to $11 in 2022 and $12 in 2023. It will increase to $13.50 in 2025 and to $15 in 2026.
Meanwhile, the minimum wage in the District will increase Wednesday to $15 an hour for salaried workers and to $5 an hour for tipped workers.
The minimum wage in Montgomery County, Maryland, also rises to $15 an hour on Wednesday.