RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginians could buy recreational marijuana over the counter starting in 2024 if a bill in the General Assembly passes, but retail sales have a hazy path forward in a politically divided government.

On Friday morning, the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee advanced an amended bill that would allow medical cannabis providers to start selling recreational marijuana to adult customers starting Jan. 1, 2024.

But first, bill sponsor Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Fairfax) said those medical providers would have to pay a fee and enter into five franchise agreements with applicants from historically economically disadvantaged communities, who would also be able to open storefronts in January 2024. In the bill, the term refers to areas above the statewide poverty rate or where a majority of the population are persons of color.

“Cannabis is legal to possess in Virginia and we want people to have a way to buy a safe, regulated product. If it’s going to be sold, it should be taxed,” Ebbin said.

Ebbin said other applicants would have to wait until July 1, 2024, to enter the retail market. 

Senator Jeremy McPike (D-Prince William) fears this approach is unfair, though he thinks Ebbin’s changes are a step in the right direction. 

“I still have somewhat of the same concern in terms of establishing market dominance very early in the process that will disadvantage others as they try to start up later in the market,” McPike said.

The question of giving certain groups a leg up in a budding industry also appears to be a main sticking point for House Republicans, who have rejected efforts to move forward with a regulated market in the past. 

Several GOP lawmakers have privately acknowledged that a bill to legalize recreational marijuana sales has the potential to get double-digit support in their caucus if the legislation reaches the House floor, but much of that depends on how Senate Democrats approach the concept of social equity — a priority for the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. 

“We need to legalize marijuana in the right way, in a socially responsible way, and in a way that ensures that the communities and people who are disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs have a meaningful opportunity to benefit from a legalized market,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said in a press conference on the first day of the 2023 session. 

“I can’t support the provision inside the bill that gives those that were convicted of marijuana crimes in the past first access to all the licenses,” said Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach). “It puts law-abiding citizens, because they have not committed a crime, at the back of the line.”

Ebbin said those provisions, which were included in previous years, have been removed from the bill this year in an effort to win bipartisan support. He said they’ve also had to change their approach to equity to navigate a legal environment at the federal level that appears to be growing more hostile towards race-based criteria. 

“Social equity programs defined similarly to previous language in our bill are either currently tied in litigation or have been struck down by courts,” Ebbin said.

Republican House Speaker Todd Gilbert indicated in a previous interview that the caucus is also looking for guidance from Governor Glenn Youngkin before taking a public stance on the issue. Youngkin pivoted earlier this week when asked if he would support compromise legislation. 

“The bill I am tracking and looking for is a bill that deals with hemp and Delta-8 and the regulations and consumer safety around those products,” Youngkin said at an event on Monday. “We have products that are being mislabeled, mis-sold and targeted towards children. That is the bill that I am watching to make sure that comes out, because that’s the bill I want to sign.”

The bill Youngkin is referring to, which seeks to increase regulation and enforcement surrounding certain hemp-derived products, also won approval from a Senate panel on Friday.

But Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) pushed back, arguing unsafe products are proliferating to fill the gap left by the lack of regulated marijuana sales. He tried to amend the hemp bill so that it could only take effect alongside legislation allowing retail marijuana sales, but that effort was rejected by lawmakers from both parties.

“My concern is, as long as we keep doing this piecemeal, we’re just going to keep playing whac-a-mole and dealing with new problems,” Surovell said.