Virginia Set for Legal Marijuana Possession, Retail by 2024

With compromises made on both sides, Virginia is on track to become the first state in the South to legalize marijuana.

The Virginia Capitol building on a chilly January morning. (Photo by Brad Kutner/Courthouse News Service)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia’s two legislative chambers passed a recreational marijuana bill Saturday evening which will see the state open up adult use and legal dispensaries by 2024. 

Details on the nearly 300-page bill were still being sussed out after the latest version was distributed only hours earlier. The successful effort comes after several versions were passed between the more progressive House and traditional Senate to make the new and final compromise. The vote also comes on the final day of the General Assembly’s annual legislative session. 

“It’s been a lot of work to get here but I’d say we’re on the path toward an equitable law to allow adults to use cannabis,” said Senator Adam Ebbin of Alexandria who has long championed legalization but faced pushed back under GOP leadership. Democrats took control of both chambers in 2020 and decriminalized last session; this effort is seen as a continuation of that effort. 

The biggest hold up over the long-discussed bill centered on the time frame for the new law to take effect. While a state agency, Cannabis Control Authority, will be created this summer which will allow it to begin making regulations to help in the eventual distribution of licenses and give local grow operations time to get established, recreational marijuana and possession will not be legal until after Jan. 1, 2024. 

Concerns about how ongoing prohibition will continue to impact minority communities was a top concern. 

“Even the thought of business before justice is hard to stomach knowing some of my constituents are in jail right now while we are establishing a regulatory authority for businesses,” said Hampton Roads-area Delegate Cia Price, a Democrat, before abstaining from the vote. “If this bill was a true justice bill I would jump to vote yes.”

But its passage means, for now at least, that come Jan. 1, 2024, Virginians over the age of 21 will be allowed to buy marijuana products in stores and hold up to one ounce of flower or equivalent product and cultivate up to four plants for personal use. 

Having too many plants will render a $250 civil penalty while having more than an ounce will lead to a $25 civil penalty. Having more than a pound will count as a felony. 

The state will collect a 21% tax on all products sold in stores and localities will be able to add an additional three percent tax if they wish. Edible products will be maxed out at five milligrams per serving with no more than 50 milligrams per package. Forty percent of the funds will go to schools with the rest going between equity funds and other state needs. 

Public consumption will still be forbidden and open container laws will apply for driving with pot in the car. 

Another sticking point was how companies would be able to vertically integrate, controlling production as well as sales. The House was worried about how medical operators, legalized and opened in the last year, would have a leg up, but a compromise was met with money being contributed from those organizations to a Cannabis Equity Business Fund to support disadvantaged Virginians in starting their own businesses. 

Many of the business-side details will fall under the power of the Cannabis Control Authority, but they’ll take some input from a new citizen-led committee, the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board who will help ensure equity in the future market. 

A seat on the board, as well as some of the licenses to sell and produce, will be reserved for those who have a history of marijuana offenses on their record. A state loan program, the Virginia Cannabis Equity Business Loan Fund, will also offer lending options for those impacted by marijuana’s prohibition in the face of traditional banks’ inability to loan money to the still federally-forbidden industry. 

Ngiste Abebe, director of public policy for New York-based medical marijuana company Columbia Care, said in an interview ahead of Saturday’s vote that she was pleased with much of the bill’s equity efforts. 

“This bill does a lot to be sure there is space for social equity licenses,” she said, pointing to rules such as a ban transferring those licenses for five years to “ensures folks have ownership [while] minimizing the risk of bad actors in other equity programs.” 

She also expected a board structure that would help fill in a lot of the regulatory gaps the law in its current form might not address.

“You need to have an empowered regulator in order to make decisions,” she said. 

However Michael Carter, the head of Carter Farms who represented over 2,000 minority owned-farms on a state commission which worked last year to develop the bill, expressed some concern as he followed the complicated legislative process.

Among those concerns was the vertical integration aspects of the bill before Saturday’s vote. 

“It sounds good in theory but it pushes out the small grower because of capital,” he said. “We need to be able to support small farmers for a season or two before you can make any profit.”

There’s still plenty to work out with many of the points mentioned above specifically being looked at and voted upon again next year. Abebe, who tracked progress on other legislative efforts to legalize in states like Illinois, said she was shocked at the speed with which Virginia was acting in the first place. But she also suggested whatever was passed this year could, if not would, face adjustments before fully going into effect. 

“Corn has been around for millennia and we’re still coming up with laws for it,” she said. “It’s good to see this ball get rolling, even if this bill was the best we can do there would be something to return to next year.”

But Carter wasn’t totally convinced. While he was open to making some compromises, he feared if equity wasn’t a top priority now it might never be.

“Once the money starts flowing I’m not sure we’ll have much of a say,” he said, opining on a scenario where national groups come in early as “industry experts” which could restrain those who have been disadvantaged by the criminal aspect of the industry for nearly 100 years. 

He’s not the only critic of the effort. Shortly before it passed both chambers Saturday, the Virginia ACLU sent out a missive sharing Price’s concerns.

“This bill does not advance the cause of equal justice or racial justice in Virginia,” the group said in a statement. “It is the product of a closed-door legislative process that has prioritized the interests of recreational marijuana smokers over people and communities of color.”

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring pushed back on this theory ahead of Saturday’s vote. 

“This bill makes no new criminal penalties and I look forward to addressing all of our possession laws,” she said, noting the punishments associated with the ACLU’s concerns are already on the books for alcohol. “This moves us in a direction to strike down institutional barriers and over policing of African Americans who seem to get the brunt of criminal convictions.”

The legislation will now head to Governor Ralph Northam’s desk. 

A Democrat who faced strong criticism after a photo of him in blackface emerged two years ago, Northam put marijuana legalization alongside numerous other legislative efforts that he hopes will address the state’s history of racial inequality during the 2021 session which ends Monday.

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