The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginians will have to wait for legal marijuana sales as GOP kills massive bill

A hemp plant grows at the Flower for the People facility in Newport News, Va. (Kristen Zeis for The Washington Post)
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A Virginia House of Delegates subcommittee on Monday killed efforts to accelerate recreational marijuana sales in the state, leaving its budding cannabis industry in limbo for at least another year.

The GOP-controlled House panel voted along party lines to float a nearly 200-page bill until next year’s legislative session. The bill had become this year’s vehicle for nearly all marijuana-related measures, outlining everything from enforcement and regulation to tax revenue and reinvestment. One of the biggest provisions would have allowed the state’s four preexisting medicinal dispensaries and some large industrial hemp processors to begin selling recreational marijuana Sept. 15.

“I spent most of the weekend poring through this bill and trying to come to the determination whether now is the right time for this policy in Virginia,” Del. Jeffrey L. Campbell (R-Smyth) said during Monday’s meeting. “I think this is a bigger issue than we can correct in two weeks’ time.”

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Last summer, then-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had signed into law a measure making it legal for people 21 or older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and cultivate up to four marijuana plants in their household, making Virginia one of 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, to legalize recreational marijuana. But the complex legislation still left it illegal to buy or sell cannabis, since retail sales were not slated to begin until 2024, giving the state time to build a regulated commercial market.

This year, Democratic delegates and senators from both parties pushed to speed up the timeline, to give consumers a safe and regulated way to buy marijuana and mitigate the black market.

“If we don’t have a bill that gives us a well-regulated adult-use market amidst the backdrop of legalization in Virginia, we are basically providing a year for the growth and strengthening of the illicit market,” Del. Dawn M. Adams (D-Richmond) said Monday. “And the longer we wait to have a regulated market, I think the harder it will be to take control or even compete with that illicit market.”

Early sales became one of the most debated parts of the marijuana discussion in Richmond, with some social equity advocates and small hemp processors in the state voicing concern that a head start could shut small and minority business owners out of the market.

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But the outlook for recreational marijuana in Virginia had remained a mystery for much of this year’s legislative session, as the newly GOP-controlled House never docketed its own marijuana bills. Monday was the first time this year the House voted in any form on the legalization bill.

Last year, Republicans opposed Democrats’ legalization efforts, especially some social equity aspects of the legislation, such as diverting tax revenue to a fund to help communities affected by disproportionate drug-law enforcement. But after Republicans took over the House and governorship this year, GOP leaders, including Gov. Glenn Youngkin, had indicated they were prepared to address marijuana legislation, acknowledging that the law still needed work to set up the commercial market.

On Monday, Garren Shipley, spokesman for House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), said that work will require more time.

“It was kind of like buying a really old car,” Shipley said. “You knew it had some problems, but then the more you get under the hood, the worse and worse it gets. And it’s just going to take more work than what we can do in one session to fix this thing.”

The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria), said he was frustrated by Republicans’ blocking of the bill — and their rationale. Most of the bill’s framework, he noted, had carried over from last year.

“There was a lot of thought that was put into it. And to say it’s too complicated for them is really not an acceptable excuse when they had a year to read the bill and a year to come up with their own alternative,” Ebbin said. “This legislation was the only vehicle to establish a regulated, equitable adult-use market, and there’s a real cost of not establishing an adult cannabis marketplace. Illicit cannabis sales will continue to grow, and the illicit market will balloon.”

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Marijuana Justice, an organization advocating for an equitable cannabis industry in Virginia, had been fighting the legislation. It argued that some new provisions of the bill, such as early sales, could make it difficult for minority business owners to break into the industry.

Executive Director Chelsea Higgs Wise said she was encouraged by the outcome to push the bill to next year, though she recognized that Republican priorities will probably diverge from those of Marijuana Justice.

“This allows us more time to organize with our communities and inform communities on the nuances of the legalization proposals so that they can come back stronger to really support the priority of supporting those most impacted by the war on drugs,” Higgs Wise said.

The now-dead bill also included provisions on resentencing for those imprisoned on marijuana-related charges, but a separate bill tackling that issue is still moving through the House. Another subcommittee, which considered that bill Monday afternoon, voted to solicit recommendations on resentencing from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, with lawmakers hoping to come to a compromise by Friday.