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Virginia Bill Would Let Communities Opt Out of Cannabis Legalization


As Virginia’s 2021 cannabis legislation evolves and advances, one delegate sponsors a bill that would allow localities to opt out of legalization, potentially establishing a regulatory patchwork across the Commonwealth. HB 2315’s sole sponsor is Del. Daniel Marshall, a Republican from Virginia’s 14th District. Some advocates say allowing individual localities to opt out of legalization would give rise to an unnecessarily complex and unfair landscape.

The current legalization bills—which passed the House and the Senate last week—would already bestow some cannabis authority to communities, letting local voters choose to opt out of retail sales through referendum (Governor Ralph Northam’s administration originally proposed localities should have to opt-in to the market, but that tactic was abandoned during session).

The opt-out structure mirrors Virginia’s latest legislative approach to its remaining “dry” counties—in 2019, the Governor signed a bill that allows alcohol sales in all localities, unless a community chooses to be dry through a voter referendum.

But, as this administration acknowledges, establishing a legal cannabis market brings unique responsibilities, given the longstanding disproportionate effects of the War on Drugs on Black people. A number of justice debates persist relating to the Commonwealth’s legalization process, especially in regard to the strength of social equity provisions. Allowing the complete local opt-out of legalization that Marshall proposes would present significant additional concerns, including new barriers for social equity license applicants.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, Virginia NORML executive director, said such a move would create “confusion and legal peril” for Virginians. She added, if communities opted out of legalization, “Not only would this prohibition continue to disproportionately criminalize Black and Brown Virginians…it would serve to protect and encourage the illegal marijuana market.”

I asked Brandon Soderberg of Outlaw Report, a reporter, editor and author with deep experience covering the War on Drugs, to weigh in on this bill. He said it is “really saying communities should be able to choose between generating revenue through the growing cannabis industry or generating revenue by continuing to stop, ticket, and arrest Virginians for weed—and as we all know, Black Virginians are disproportionately arrested. I don’t think that should be a choice in 2021.” 

“I also keep thinking of Baltimore, Maryland where, thanks to a decision from the State’s Attorney’s Office in 2019, cannabis possession arrests aren’t really prioritized anymore. While the change was reform-minded, the result is confusing for the average person: Less than 10 grams is decriminalized and over 10 grams is technically against the law but if there’s no evidence of intent-to-distribute and you are in Baltimore, then you likely won’t be charged—oh and also there’s medicinal. These stopgap attempts to play to both reformers and anti-cannabis hold-outs are really unwise, in my opinion.”

In 2020, HB 2315’s patron, Rep. Marshall, sponsored a successful proposal that legalized smoking hemp for people over 21, which became effective in July. Marshall agreed with Governor Northam’s move to decriminalize cannabis. But in a late 2020 Zoom meeting with other representatives, Marshall said he was against legalization and supported letting localities choose whether to participate in a retail market, the Martinsville Bulletin reported. The bill he introduced Jan. 21 goes further, allowing communities to prohibit local cannabis legalization.

We reached out to Rep. Marshall but did not get a response, and his website is down. HB 2315 is currently in the Committee for Courts of Justice.

 A new poll from Christopher Newport University found 68% of Virginians surveyed support cannabis legalization—up from 61% in 2019 and 39% in 2017.

A few of the other bills Marshall sponsored this session relate to requiring video recordings of absentee voting and other election processes; letting people with concealed handgun permits carry weapons into public properties where firearms are prohibited; and postponing Virginia’s scheduled minimum wage increase.

Image by Mironov Konstantin via Shutterstock

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