RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A spending plan crafted by the Republican-led House of Delegates would defund a new state agency created to oversee marijuana legalization in Virginia.
The proposal to cut nearly 70 percent of the Cannabis Control Authority’s budget over two fiscal years comes as the GOP is shutting down efforts to launch retail sales of recreational marijuana for the second legislative session in a row. It signals House Republicans are unlikely to shift their stance anytime soon.
Jeremy Preiss, the acting head of the CCA, said in an email on Wednesday that his staff didn’t know about the $13.4 million reduction before it was proposed. If approved, he said the cuts could undermine the regulation of medical cannabis and initiatives that address public health risks associated with marijuana legalization, such as impaired driving and youth substance abuse.
“The magnitude of the cuts is concerning,” Preiss said. “Substantial budget cuts would undercut the Cannabis Control Authority’s ability to achieve these important objectives. We remain hopeful the General Assembly will choose to fully fund the CCA’s budget and not jeopardize its public safety and health agenda.”
House Appropriations Committee Chair Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach) declined to do an on-camera interview about the proposed cuts in his budget plan. In a series of text messages, he said he didn’t know the details or who asked for the amendment.
“Not sure who put it in. Don’t need the money if we are not expanding this issue,” Knight wrote on Wednesday.
GOP House Speaker Todd Gilbert and House Republican Caucus Spokesperson Garren Shipley also didn’t know who specifically proposed the cuts.
The budget slash was not included in Governor Glenn Youngkin’s package of amendments.
Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for Youngkin, declined to comment when asked if the administration pushed for the cuts.
The proposal is one of several differences between House and Senate spending plans that will be negotiated behind closed doors in the coming days.
In stark contrast, the Democrat-led Senate proposed an additional $6 million for the CCA. The plan includes 28 positions for the agency to implement the regulatory structure for legal cannabis sales in the Commonwealth.
Senator Adam Ebbin (D-Fairfax) said the increase may not be necessary since a House subcommittee voted 5-3 along party lines Tuesday to kill his legislation. The bill would’ve allowed recreational marijuana sales to start in Virginia come Jan. 1, 2024. It also called for product safety testing and created a tax structure.
“The Republican party in the House of Delegates has been an impediment for legal sales for cannabis and voters should keep that in mind when they vote in November,” Ebbin said.
Every seat in the General Assembly will be on the ballot in this fall’s election, which could shift the balance of power.
During the 2021 session, when Democrats were in charge of state government, the General Assembly made it legal for adults to possess and grow small amounts of recreational marijuana, but they didn’t finalize the future of retail sales. That delay turned into a major barrier when the GOP took back control of the House and swept statewide offices later that year. Governor Youngkin has since taken a hands-off approach to marijuana.
“The Governor has not taken a position specifically on the retail piece of this legislation but, what he has said over and over again, is we are focused on cleaning up the illegal hemp and delta-8 sales that are going on right now throughout the commonwealth,” Parker Slaybaugh, Youngkin’s Chief Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, told a House subcommittee on Tuesday.
The CCA may also end up playing a key role when it comes to regulating those hemp products.
Senator Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta County) said his bill asks the agency to craft regulations creating per package limits on THC, the psychoactive component in cannabis that causes a high. Hanger said that may change as negotiations with the House get underway.
Hanger, who opposes recreational marijuana sales, is hesitant about stripping resources from the CCA but he thinks the size of the agency will be up for debate moving forward.
Asked if the House proposal goes too far, Hanger said, “I’m not sure. I really haven’t looked at numbers yet. I do see a function for the CCA in the short term and maybe the long term as far as the medical marijuana and regulating some of these products that may remain legal.”
Hanger opposed a last-ditch effort to keep the ball rolling on recreational marijuana sales this session. Using his bill as a vehicle, Senate Democrats pushed for an amendment that would’ve allowed the CCA to craft regulations for the retail market in the off season and make recommendations to the General Assembly in the 2024 session.
A less divisive bill passed with bipartisan support in both the House and Senate on Wednesday. It transfers oversight of the state’s medical cannabis program from the Virginia Board of Pharmacy to the Cannabis Control Authority.
Chairman Knight thinks the House proposal is enough to maintain the status quo and oversee the medical program but Senator Ebbin isn’t so sure.
“It doesn’t make sense to cut back the funding at a time where we are going to give them increased responsibilities,” Ebbin said.