Virginia Senate panel votes to advance marijuana legalization bill

Capitol Connection

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A bill to legalize marijuana in Virginia cleared a hurdle Wednesday, but not before changes were made that will likely push back the governor’s targeted date for legal sales to begin.

A Senate panel voted 4-3 along party lines to advance legislation that would allow Virginians who are 21 and older to legally purchase cannabis, including amendments on how the industry would be regulated.

The Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Subcommittee on Marijuana held meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, each lasting over two hours, to listen to testimony from nearly a 100 people and discuss a proposal for legalization from Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration.

Northam’s proposal, which was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) and Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), would allow Virginians who are 21 and older to legally purchase marijuana in 2023 if approved during this year’s General Assembly session.

The bill originally called for establishing a regulatory system monitored by Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority and a seven member Cannabis Control Advisory Board within the agency that will lead the work and advise ABC’s board.

After a “temperature check” during Tuesday’s meeting yielded unclear results, the panel seemed poised to recommend creating an independent agency to oversee and regulate a legal marijuana market in Virginia.

“This line of business is quite different than what ABC does,” Sen. Jeremy S. McPike (D-Prince William), the chairman of the subcommittee, said Wednesday morning.

Forming a new agency instead of allowing ABC to have oversight of the market will ensure that the governor’s goal to legalize sales by 2023 would be delayed “at least six months,” a representative for Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission said. The panel later recommended pushing back the bill’s enactment framework a year to 2024, citing the work it will take to establish a new agency.

“My sense is that we want to do this right, not faster,” McPike said.

In the end, the panel recommended adding an amendment to establish a new regulatory agency and mandatory quarterly progress updates. The senators on the panel suggested that if these updates share promising results, legal sales could come sooner than 2024.

JLARC, a watchdog group for the state’s legislature, said in a November report that legal marijuana sales could generate hundreds of millions in state revenue and reduce arrests across the commonwealth.

Senators raised concerns that thrusting the responsibility on Virginia ABC could hinder its main objective of regulating alcohol sales, while others spoke about how the agency is set up for enforcement and distribution, not cultivation.

“We are taking only a portion of what ABC does and trying to fit into that system,” Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said Tuesday.

McPike, Surovell and the other two Democrats on the panel, Sens. Lionell Spruill, Sr. (Chesapeake) and Jennifer B. Boysko (Fairfax), voted to approve the changes and advance the bill. Some Republicans noted their appreciation for the subcommittee’s work and recommendations it made, but all three — Sens. Ryan T. McDougle (Hanover), Bryce E. Reeves (Spotsylvania) and Senator Jennifer A. Kiggans (Virginia Beach) — voted against it. McDougle and Kiggans said they don’t believe Virginia should legalize the drug.

The legislation, which rolled in a bill from Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond), will now move to the rehabilitation and social services committee. It must still go through several committees and each chamber before it can be signed into law.

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