Cannabis advocates scored a huge win this year when Virginia passed a sweeping set of reforms legalizing the possession, home cultivation, and recreational sales of the plant.
But for some, the work is only getting started.
A new activist group is gearing up to take the fight for cannabis justice beyond Virginia’s state legislature, and deeper into the commonwealth’s local communities.
The Virginia Socialist Marijuana Coalition hopes to rally activists from across the state to push local jurisdictions—from powerful metropolitan counties to rural townships—to pass more equitable cannabis policies.
“The coalition is built to do the boots-on-the-ground work,” Rafael Gil-Figueroa, an organizer for VSMC’s Northern Virginia branch, told The Outlaw Report.
Launched on July 28, the group is an offshoot of various local chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the nation’s largest socialist organization with more than 94,000 members. But Gil-Figueroa says being part of DSA isn’t required to join.
“Everyone who’s in the coalition has an equal voice, be they in or out of DSA,” he said.
One of the coalition’s main goals, Gil-Figueroa said, is to fill in some of the policy gaps that were left unaddressed by the state legislature: “The way the law was written, a lot of things are left up to the municipalities, to each county,” he said.
For instance, the new law gives localities the power to hold a referendum on whether to allow retail cannabis sales in their community. It also allows them to pass ordinances on where pot can be consumed in public, and to regulate business hours and zoning rules for dispensaries.
Most localities have welcomed legalization, but some communities have expressed skepticism towards the new laws. Officials in Loudoun County have repeatedly criticized legalization while ignoring its core purpose as a solution to start addressing historic racial injustices.
Gil-Figueroa said he fully expects some communities to be less receptive to VSMC’s vision for cannabis equity.
“Loudoun County might be one where we’re going to have a problem,” he said.
But in some ways, that’s the whole point.
“A lot of the issue is just bringing up the conversation because of the stigma that has been built into marijuana and cannabis over the years,” Gil-Figueroa said.
Part of VSMC’s mission is to educate people on issues of cannabis equity—even if that means going to communities that vehemently oppose the drug.
“Overcoming that hurdle just comes down to being able to build slowly,” he said. “So you just find the people who are willing to listen, and you talk to them first.”
Many components of legalization are still up in the air. Though possession and home cultivation became legal on July 1, retail cannabis sales won’t be authorized until 2024, and a number of provisions will need to be re-enacted by the General Assembly during its next legislative session in 2022.
Gil-Figueroa said some provisions on possession are still too vague, and need to be refined at the local level to avoid any confusion that could further harm people of color.
“There’s already things in the law that raise red flags for us,” he said.
For instance, while Virginia code stipulates that it’s illegal to drive with an open container of cannabis, it’s unclear what would constitute a sealed container in the eyes of the law.
And how will Virginia redistribute what experts say will soon be hundreds of millions of tax revenue from legal cannabis sales? Some of those tax dollars will go to a fund overseen by the newly created Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board (CERB). But Gil-Figueroa says it’s unclear how the money will be split up between individual localities.
“How is that money getting into the hands of locals?” he asked. “We want to be much more granular about how the money is spent, because the devil is in the details.”
Another concern is that the commonwealth’s new cannabis industry could fail to diversify, and quickly become dominated by large corporations, as is now the case in Colorado, where pot was legalized in 2012.
“We’re trying to lay the foundations for the industry to be built properly in Virginia, as opposed to it being run by hedge fund managers and space billionaires,” said Gil-Figueroa.
Members of DSA founded VSMC to support the work of Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice Virginia, a group that advocated for stronger social equity provisions in Virginia’s new cannabis legislation. Higgs Wise played a key role in moving up the date by which possession became legal to July 1.
At the coalition’s launch party last week, Higgs Wise discussed objectives for the group during a virtual panel with Mike Thomas, a Richmond-based hemp cultivator, and Michael Wilson, an organizer for Cannabis Workers Rising.
Gil-Figueroa said that even though he’s never consumed cannabis, he knew he wanted to be involved with VSMC as soon as he heard about it.
“I just raised my hand immediately,” he said. “Not because I personally have used cannabis in any way, shape or form because I’m a Brown man so the fear of instantaneous jail lives large in my mind.”
A Virginia native, he sees the coalition as an opportunity to build a cause from the ground up.
“It’s a great commonwealth, but I think we can make it better,” he said.