RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — House Republicans rejected an effort to speed up recreational marijuana sales in Virginia.
On Monday, a House General Laws subcommittee voted 5-3 along party lines to carry over the bill until next year. The Virginia Senate passed the legislation, which would have allowed recreational sales to start this September, on a bipartisan vote.
Monday’s vote was an earlier-than-expected blow to the bill. While many Republicans have a history of opposing marijuana legalization, House leadership previously pledged to work towards compromise to fix what they felt was a messy legal situation.
“I spent most of the weekend poring through this bill and trying to come to the determination whether now is the right time for this policy in Virginia,” said Del. Jeffrey Campbell (R-Marion). “There are still a lot of unknowns obviously in this. I think this is a bigger issue than we can correct in two weeks’ time.”
Democrats on the panel acknowledged concerns about the legislation but argued any pause in the process would only strengthen the unregulated market.
“The longer we wait to have a regulated market, I think the harder it will be to take control or even compete with that illicit market,” said Del. Dawn Adams (D-Richmond). “That’s why I really think that the motion is something that should fail and we should have some opportunity to see if we can get in a better place over time that two weeks might allow us.”
Virginia lawmakers legalized simple possession and limited home cultivation for adults last year without a regulatory framework in place, limiting options to legally obtain cannabis. Virginians can currently grow it, receive it as a gift or buy it from a medical dispensary after registering with the state.
Under the bill passed last session, retail sales were set to start in 2024 but lawmakers included a reenactment clause requiring additional approval in the 2022 legislative session to move forward with that plan.
“I think it’s premature to give up when we’re so close to the goal line,” Del. Paul Krizek (D-Fairfax) said moments before the vote Monday.
The bill rejected by the House subcommittee on Monday was changed to allow certain medical and hemp processors to begin selling recreational products on Sept. 15, 2022 before opening up the market to other businesses on Jan. 1, 2024.
State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), the bill’s sponsor, said Republicans “didn’t do their homework” and that Monday’s vote effectively delays sales indefinitely.
“It delays the opening of the broader market,” Sen. Ebbin said. “I mean, unless we come up with some kind of miraculous agreement in the interim, I don’t think that you’ll see cannabis sales on Jan. 1, 2024.”
Ebbin said most of the legislation’s provisions were well known before the vote and studied extensively with input from the the Joint Legislative Audit Review Commission (JLARC).
“There is the cost of doing nothing, and that cost is the establishment of the illicit market or the furtherance of illicit market in Virginia and that’s on the Republicans,” Ebbin said. “They couldn’t be bothered to read the bill. They couldn’t be bothered to constructively contribute. They couldn’t be bothered to offer their own alternative and it’s time for them to engage.”
Campbell dismissed those arguments.
“I don’t think it’s a fair assertion, quite frankly. We’ve spent a lot of time this session looking at this and there’s still a lot of problems,” Campbell said. “For instance, the taxation component of it, we think the rate is far too high. It’s proven to be too high in California, and that has allowed the black market to proliferate there and that’s something that we want to try to tone up before we move forward in the next year.”
The plan from Democrats proposed a 21% tax rate on marijuana sales. Republicans proposed dropping the tax rate to 10% but the House ultimately didn’t advance any cannabis bills in their own chamber before a key legislative deadline.
Some celebrated Monday’s vote as a victory for public safety.
“The passage of this bill would have been a huge gift to Big Pot, but a calamitous loss to public health, safety, and commonsense. As such, today’s vote in the House of Delegates is a resounding victory,” said Dr. Kevin Sabet, president and co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM).
Meanwhile, some supporters of commercial sales were happy to see this version get shot down.
Marijuana Justice Executive Director Chelsea Higgs Wise said allowing big business to get a head start on commercial sales was unfair. She said the Senate’s approach didn’t do enough to promote social equity in what’s expected to be a multi-billion dollar industry.
“Legislating big cannabusiness really creates more harms for our communities to be left out, particularly if social equity operators, small businesses and farmers are not included in sales day one,” Higgs Wise said. “We’re supposed to really be centering those who were impacted by the war on drugs and can continue to be impacted by these proposals as we move forward.”
Some criminal justice reforms still have a chance of moving forward this session, though they may not go as far as some advocates had hoped.
Bills from Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) addressing the expungement of records and resentencing of people with marijuana-related convictions are still alive in the House.
A House Courts of Justice subcommittee didn’t immediately act on the expungement legislation on Monday. The same panel advanced a substitute that directs the Department of Criminal Justice Services to make recommendations regarding resentencing.