RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-Multiple bills in the Virginia General Assembly attempt to accelerate recreational marijuana sales, which could start as early as this summer.
Meanwhile, some fear the approach lawmakers are leaning towards would give one group an unfair advantage in what’s expected to be a multi-billion dollar industry.
Last year, the General Assembly legalized possession of an ounce of cannabis and home cultivation of four marijuana plants for those 21 and older. The current law sets a goal of starting legal sales for adults on Jan. 1, 2024 but that plan requires additional approval in a newly divided state government.
Republicans–now in control of the executive branch and the House of Delegates–will have more leverage in the debate that was previously dominated by Democratic majorities. Governor Glenn Youngkin has said he doesn’t plan to repeal marijuana legalization but he is a known skeptic of commercial sales.
The Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Cannabis Sub-Committee renewed the tedious debate in a meeting Wednesday morning. The panel heard two approaches to speed up legal sales.
A bill from Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) would allow certain medical marijuana processors to begin selling recreational products to those 21 and older as early as July 1, 2022. It tasks the Virginia Board of Pharmacy with crafting regulations until that authority can be handed off to a new state agency, the Cannabis Control Authority.
The option has the support of JM Pedini, the executive director of Virginia NORML. Pedini said it gives consumers access to safe, regulated products, rather than relying on the black market.
“Legalization really has to at some point consider consumers, not just who gets to make money first or next off of them,” Pedini said.
An alternative approach from Senator Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), which was endorsed by the sub-committee, would wait until Jan. 1, 2023 to start recreational sales through pharmaceutical processors. Ebbin argued the additional six months would allow more time for the CCA to promulgate its own regulations, for the state to launch a public safety campaign and for localities to hold November ballot referendums to potentially opt out of legal sales.
Ebbin’s bill previously created an avenue for industrial hemp processors to get involved in transitional sales before licenses were offered to a broader pool of applicants but the sub-committee scrapped that on Wednesday.
The move was a disappointment to Derek Wall, who co-owns The Buffalo Hemp Company. He said he’s ready to jump into recreational marijuana and medical processors shouldn’t get a head start.
“It will hurt small businesses and our ability to get off the ground running when you already have an overwhelming amount of competition out there that has laid their stake as far as their name and products go. I think allowing everyone entry at the same time will eliminate that overwhelming market share,” Wall said.
Ebbin pointed out that those entering the transitional market will have to pay a fee currently set at $6 million. He said it will be used to help smaller operators get on their feet. Ebbin said the bill also sets a limit on how much pharmaceutical processors can grow and requires them to educate five qualified “social equity retailers” on the cannabis market.
“They’ll have an advantage starting early but it’s worth giving that advantage to meet the demand,” Ebbin said.
That wasn’t enough for Phillip Thompson, a cannabis equity consultant who testified on Wednesday. He said the existing measures wont meaningfully help minorities disproportionately impacted by past enforcement of marijuana laws.
“This is a contrived process that has been set up by the medical cannabis people from the beginning and all of you representatives and senators are falling for this trap…you can slow this process down and develop a real program,” Thompson said.
Speaking in opposition, Central Virginia mother Linda Moore said marijuana was behind her son’s mental health issues. She urged lawmakers to stop moving forward with commercial sales altogether, citing a lack of targeted counseling and the accessibility of higher potency marijuana.
“Adolescents and adults well into their twenties whose brains are still developing cannot handle today’s marijuana. I ask you to think about the lack of support available here in Virginia,” Moore said.
When sales will start is just one component of a complex debate. Another 198 page bill from Senator Ebbin creates a framework for the legal market by setting limits on advertising, where retail stores can open and when they can operate. It clarifies legal gray areas surrounding possession at home and in the car. It also adjusts some penalties and addresses expungement of past marijuana convictions.
Last year, lawmakers set no clear cap on the amount of marijuana flower that can legally be kept in a private residence. The bill aims to set an upper possession limit of four pounds at home.
There was also significant confusion over what lawmakers meant when they prohibited having an “open container” of marijuana in the car. This bill updates that standard by directing courts to generally presume fault if the cannabis is accessible to the driver or passenger and in an unsealed container.
The Senate bill allows localities to opt out of legal sales if a majority of voters agree in a local ballot referendum. It further authorizes localities to restrict public possession and consumption in certain public spaces through ordinances. There is likely to be extensive debate on this topic as there is legislation in the House that would require localities to opt in to legal sales instead.