Virginia lawmakers on Tuesday weighed the possibility of launching retail cannabis sales earlier than planned at the inaugural meeting of the General Assembly’s new Joint Commission on Cannabis Oversight (JCCO).
Pot possession became legal in the commonwealth on July 1, but recreational sales aren’t set to begin until 2024. Some critics say that delay could be confusing for Virginians, who can now legally consume cannabis, but have nowhere to get the drug unless they grow it at home, or receive it as a gift from someone who does.
“What we need to do is get the safe sales of marijuana out there as soon as possible,” said Del. Paul Krizek, a Democrat representing parts of Fairfax County.
Krizek warned that delaying the timeline for retail sales could shore up the illegal cannabis market while leading to unnecessary arrests for consumers who misinterpret the law.
“They’ve heard it’s legal, and they probably think that they can buy it legally,” he said. “It’s going to become more and more difficult to explain [the law] to the general public.”
As a fix, some lawmakers are looking into authorizing Virginia’s existing medical dispensaries to sell recreational cannabis on a temporary basis before retail sales officially begin in 2024. (Virginia allowed five medical operators–also known as pharmaceutical processors–to open dispensaries across the commonwealth in 2018.)
David May, a legislative staffer for JCCO, outlined the proposal, which he said was brought to the commission by medical cannabis companies themselves.
“The suggestion was to come up with a temporary permit process under which only—primarily—pharmaceutical processors would operate, given some sort of skeletal rule system that they would operate under until the regulations went into place,” he said.
As part of that proposal, medical operators would invest in an “incubator program” to help future social equity applicants—cannabis entrepreneurs who were harmed by the War on Drugs—get started with their businesses.
May said the incubator program would prevent medical operators from getting a head start in the retail market, while giving social equity applicants a financial boost.
But some lawmakers were skeptical.
“How would this work?” asked Del. Charniele Herring, a Democrat who was elected as the commission’s Vice-Chair on Tuesday. “I’m a little concerned.”
Herring cautioned that medical companies could take advantage of an incubator program by using a social equity applicant as a strawman—an owner in name only—for their businesses.
“The company says, we’ll incubate you, or we’ll sign you up with this and we’re a partner, wink, and then they get access to the show,” she said.
In response, May assured Herring that “there would be no tie” between medical operators and social equity applicants. Any funding for the incubator program, he said, would be managed and distributed by state regulators.
Herring still wasn’t convinced. “No one does anything for free,” she said.
Her concerns were echoed by local cannabis advocates who said on Wednesday that expediting retail sales could skew the market in favor of medical companies, while undermining social equity components of the law.
“I carry the same concerns as Leader Herring around speeding up legal sales that will impact Virginia’s social equity entrepreneurs,” Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice Virginia, said in an email to The Outlaw Report on Wednesday.
“Private medicinal operators have a skewed interest in maintaining a competitive stance in cannabis, and are the inappropriate stewards of social equity in the Commonwealth. Legislators’ decision to defer its duties and ethical obligations to the private sector, circles the pitfalls of racialized capitalism which has eliminated opportunities for the creation of Black generational wealth in Virginia for 402 years.”