With faster start for marijuana sales possible, future of legal market hazy under Republican leadership

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- A faster timeline for recreational marijuana sales is on the table in Virginia but the future of the legal market is hazy after Republicans swept statewide elections and likely flipped the House of Delegates. 

Earlier this year, Democrats legalized simple possession and limited home cultivation of marijuana when the party had total control in Richmond. 

With a now divided government, key details are still up for debate, including when sales will start, the structure of the market, what role social equity will play in licensing and where all that tax revenue will go. 

“The question is how long do we want to maintain this in-between phase where it really disadvantages consumers and creates additional opportunities for illicit market activities,” Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini told lawmakers on Wednesday.

In its first meeting since Election Day, a workgroup within the Cannabis Oversight Commission met to discuss various options for starting recreational sales before January 2024. The bipartisan panel of legislators directed staff to draft various options that will ultimately be presented to the full commission and later voted on by the entire General Assembly.

The earliest start date they’re looking at is July 1, 2022, which would only be possible if lawmakers allow medical dispensaries to open up sales of existing products to all adults. Some speculated that this could lower costs for medical patients by expanding the market’s customer base. 

Sen. Jeremy McPike said January 2023 and July 2023 are also being considered. He said these options would give the Cannabis Control Authority–a new regulatory agency–more time to possibly award new licenses strictly for recreational marijuana.  

The GOP will have a lot more say in that decision during next year’s General Assembly session after the party’s recent power grab. 

Del. James Morefield, the lone Republican at Wednesday’s meeting, said his party seems willing to compromise on legal sales even though many disagreed with the approach Democrats took in the first place. 

“We have a mess. We currently have laws already on the books and I think it would be irresponsible if we don’t resolve this as soon as possible,” Morefield said. 

Sen. Adam Ebbin, one of the Democrats who sponsored the bill, said he is on board with an accelerated timeline if they can work out other key details. 

“I think we should if we can,” Ebbin said. “It’s now no longer a crime to possess marijuana so obtaining it shouldn’t have the same hurdles.” 

Del. Don Scott raised concerns about how plans to award social equity licenses would fit into the earlier timeline. Some fear giving medical providers a head start will leave those disproportionately impacted by criminalization in the dust.  

“There has been a lot of people who have been disadvantaged by cannabis policies in the past and it only seems right that those who have been disadvantaged at least have the opportunity to participate in this new industry,” Ebbin said. 

Some Republicans have already publicly rejected the idea of prioritizing social equity. 

It’s not clear whether Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin would sign off on an earlier timeline for retail sales or how he would want to shape the new market if at all. 

A spokesperson for Youngkin did not directly respond to those questions. She said that he will not seek to repeal marijuana legalization but he suspects that tax revenue projections from sales are “way overstated.” Youngkin also thinks a real emphasis needs to be put on keeping pot away from minors. 

Virginia’s next Lieutenant Governor, Winsome Sears, also questioned the economic impact of legalization in a recent interview. That said, she’s not necessarily planning to block legal sales from moving forward.

The current Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax cast the tie-breaking vote to legalize marijuana possession and home cultivation, even with Democrats in control of the chamber. 

“I think we ought to take a good look at it to see how we can make it better. I’m not against medicinal marijuana. I’m just really worried about recreational marijuana,” Sears said.

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