The Virginia Senate on Wednesday voted to shelve a bill that would have created new crimes for possessing weed while imposing stricter restrictions on the commonwealth’s hemp industry.
S.B. 591, introduced in January by Sen. Emmett Hanger, a Republican representing Mount Solon, initially sought to prohibit the sale of weed edibles shaped like candy in order to prevent children from inadvertently getting exposed to THC. The measure specifically targeted cannabis products “that depict or are in the shape of a human, animal, vehicle, or fruit.”
But Gov. Glenn Youngkin later amended the bill, drastically altering its scope with several new provisions, including one to increase the penalty for possession of more than one ounce of weed –– from a $25 fine to a misdemeanor. That provision drew the ire of advocates who argued reinstating criminal penalties for small amounts of weed would reverse the progress Virginia made last year when it became the first Southern state to legalize recreational pot.
Other changes to the bill threatened to cripple Virginia’s hemp industry with heavier regulations on CBD and by banning products containing Delta-8 –– a compound extracted from industrial hemp also known as “weed lite.” The popularity of Delta-8 products has recently soared, and today they are sold at tobacco shops, gas stations, and dedicated retailers across the commonwealth. Critics say Delta-8 –– a substance that is technically above board since it comes from legal industrial hemp –– is just a loophole to get around restrictions on cannabis sales.
After some debate on Youngkin’s proposed amendments, Sen. Hanger motioned to pass the amended bill by for the day. The motion went to a floor vote that ended in a 20-20 tie. Lieutenant Gov. Winsome Earle Sears, the presiding officer of the Senate, broke that tie with a yes vote, effectively squashing the controversial measure’s chances of being taken up again this legislative session.
Ahead of the vote, some lawmakers raised concerns the bill’s failure to pass would leave children at risk of consuming candy-like THC edibles.
“For this body to fail to take action this year by sending the bill back to committee where nothing can happen – and that’s the intent – I think is really an egregious irresponsibility when we need to take action about these candies that children are thinking are innocent, and they indeed are not,” said Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, a Republican from Henrico county.
Experts say the number of children hospitalized for consuming cannabis edibles has been on the rise in Virginia. From 2019 to 2021, the Virginia Poison Center saw calls for people who consumed edibles increase from 13 to at least 78, per a report by Virginia Public Media.
But several lawmakers said they couldn’t get behind the governor’s amendments to the bill, particularly after constituents expressed concerns about reinstating crimes for cannabis possession.
Sen Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat from Charles City County, said the question of cannabis regulation was “complicated enough that it probably needs more deliberation.” She proposed to address the matter during the General Assembly’s special session to finalize the budget, though several lawmakers pushed back on the idea.
“I think it is up to this body to work through the policy implications of whatever we’re going to do when it comes to marijuana and hemp legalization,” McLellan said. “We should be the ones to finalize how this policy is going to move forward,” she added.
Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, local weed advocacy groups like Marijuana Justice had rallied against the bill, sending a petition to lawmakers that received more than 1,300 signatures.
“By rejecting the new crimes, Virginia legislated a small win for Black Virginia communities and sent the message that we will not accept a re-criminalization of our next generation,” Chelsea Higgs Wise, Executive Director of Marijuana Justice, in a statement.
Higgs Wise and others argued that reinstating new crimes for weed possession would take an unfair toll on Virginia’s communities of color, and particularly on Black youth, who have been disparately affected by harsh drug laws.
“This rejection of the Governor’s amendment shows that the legislature is standing up against systemic racism, and the disparate impact of the failed War on Drugs,” said Ashley Shapiro, legislative director of Justice Forward Virginia.