RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Buying medical marijuana in Virginia is about to get easier starting July 1.

Marijuana is legal to possess recreationally for those 21 and older but sales are still limited to medical dispensaries. A new law is speeding up the approval process for eligible patients and making it more affordable to enter the medical program.

Virginians will still need to get a certification from a registered medical cannabis practitioner and show proof of residency to make a purchase.

Notably, patients won’t need to wait for approval from the Virginia Board of Pharmacy anymore.

Ashley Allen, vice president of government affairs at Columbia Care, said applicants have been waiting several months for approval. She said these changes are critical steps towards normalizing medical marijuana as a treatment for various conditions.

“We hear from patients that that lag time and that extra step often turns them off from actually going and getting their card and so we do anticipate an influx of patients,” Allen said.

Diane Powers, communications director for the Virginia Department of Health Professions, said there are currently 52,810 registered medical cannabis patients in the state.

As of Wednesday, Powers said 4,900 applications requiring additional information or initial review were in the backlog. She said the Board will continue to process those applications after July 1, even though they’re not necessary for patient access. She didn’t give a specific timeline for when that would be complete.

“All patients that have obtained a valid, unexpired written certification from a registered practitioner for medical cannabis can access a permitted medical cannabis dispensary on July 1, 2022, and are not required to wait for their application to be processed,” Powers said in an email. “There is no need for them to return to the registered practitioner unless their written certification has expired.”

The faster approval process is a relief for Dr. Dawn Adams, a state lawmaker who has seen her medical marijuana patients struggle firsthand.

“Those patients were really suffering and some never had the benefit of what they registered to participate in the program because they subsequently died because of that delay,” Adams said.

Starting on Friday, Allen said some patients may be able to get a certification and visit a dispensary in the same day.

Adams said the state doesn’t have specific rules on who can qualify and the choice is up to individual practitioners.

Asked if she’s concerned some providers may over-prescribe without additional state oversight, Adams said, “I worry about that sometimes…If there becomes a problem on that back end we’ll have to fix it.”

Even after the changes take effect, some barriers to access will remain, including long drives to dispensaries for some patients. Adams said there are currently 10 locations open across the state and lawmakers authorized up to 30.

Allen said cost has also been a barrier for some patients, especially since insurance doesn’t cover medical marijuana. She expects prices to come down as the patient pool grows.

“The more mature markets get, the costs typically start to go down and so we’ll hope to see that in Virginia,” Allen said.

The new law also eliminates the $50 state registration fee and the $25 annual renewal fee starting July 1, according to Allen. She said Virginians in the medical marijuana program will still need to see a provider each year to keep their certification up to date.