Lawmakers in the Virginia Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would allow existing medical dispensaries to sell cannabis to adults come Sept. 15, moving up the start date for recreational sales a full 16 months from its current 2024 deadline.
The decision to provide a speedier path to legal sales marks a departure from the strategy adopted during former governor Ralph Northam’s (D) term. At the time, lawmakers planned to slow-walk recreational sales to give regulators more time to create an equitably-minded regulatory infrastructure that included participation by lower income and marginalized groups.
But after a working group convened last summer to study the effects of decriminalization on cannabis sales, lawmakers claimed that black market sales of the drug had increased. That provided an imperative to move more quickly in creating a legal avenue for sales, they argued.
“This ensures consumers can purchase safe, regulated products legally,” Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), the bill’s sponsor, said Tuesday. “[It’s] the vehicle to license new businesses and regulate the equitable adult-use market.”
The bill that passed Tuesday would create a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund within the state treasury, whose funds would be used solely to “[support] persons, families, and communities historically and disproportionately targeted and affected by drug enforcement.” Some of the money includes grants for workforce development and reentry services, as well as scholarship opportunities and vocational resources “for historically marginalized persons.” Police in Virginia are 3.4 times more likely to arrest Black residents than white residents for cannabis possession, for example, and Black Virginians are 3.9 times more likely to be convicted, even though both groups use cannabis at similar rates.
The framework that passed on Tuesday also paves a way for pharmaceutical and industrial hemp processors to begin setting up for recreational sales, with each paying a one-time $6 million and $500,000 fee, respectively, to the Department of Taxation.
When lawmakers legalized simple possession of cannabis last year, they did so without establishing regulatory framework, punting that effort to the 2022 legislative session. Though the bill eked out a 21-18 bipartisan victory, its fate in the majority-Republican House is less certain. House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) criticized Democrats before the start of the legislative session for legalizing the drug before creating regulatory framework, and other GOP members of the Virginia Senate complained that the 400-page bill presented this week was too cumbersome to read.
“It’s a bunch of crap. It’s still a mess. It’s still a mess, and we are getting hit with a 400-page substitute at 1:30 today,” Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg) said this week.
While newly installed Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has said he won’t seek to overturn the state’s legalization of marijuana, he has quibbled with parts of the plan, including the discussion among Democrats to ensure that dispensary workers can unionize. Ebbin said this week that lawmakers removed language mandating dispensary unions by the time all sales become legal in 2024 from the proposed framework.