Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring hosted a day-long cannabis summit in Richmond, Virginia on Wednesday, during which stakeholders discussed topics like social equity, law enforcement, and hemp, and policy and regulation experts from states with legal cannabis shared experiences. It was part of a broader effort to build a criminal justice system that is “more equal for all Virginians” as lawmakers prepare for the 2020 session of the General Assembly in January, during which cannabis legislation is expected.
“Front and center is badly needed reform of our cannabis laws in Virginia. I don’t believe that Virginia’s current system of criminalizing cannabis is working. It is needlessly creating criminals and burdening Virginians with convictions. The human and social costs of this are enormous,” Herring said, emphasizing that communities of color bear the heaviest burdens when it comes to how cannabis laws have been enforced.
Herring began with some cannabis statistics: During a two decade span, overall arrests for cannabis in Virginia “more than tripled,” from around 9,000 in 1999 to around 29,000 in 2018. “That’s the highest number of marijuana arrests ever recorded in Virginia,” Herring said. About 90% of these arrests were for possession, Herring said, and more than half were 24 or younger.
“It is clear to me that it is time for a new, smarter approach to cannabis in Virginia. And the question that we’re here to answer today is: what does that look like?” Herring said.
“To me, the best path forward is to immediately decriminalize possession of small amounts,” Herring continued, “and start moving toward legal regulated adult use.” Support for adult use legalization in Virginia is at 61%, according to a September poll by the University of Mary Washington.
The morning was focused on an overview of evolving cannabis laws across the US, including remarks by Senator Dave Marsden and Delegate Steve Heretic, the chairs of Virginia’s Legislative Cannabis Caucus.
“What we have to be careful of is that full legalization, or recreational, or whatever you want to call it, that people drift away from this as medicine,” Marsden said. “We have to proceed, I think, cautiously. Clearly, we need to do decriminalization.”
Next, there was a panel that featured an overview of Colorado and Illinois policies, and their experiences developing and implementing cannabis regulations. The two panelists were Jim Burack, director of Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division, and Ashley Wright, chief of legislative operations for the Illinois Attorney General’s office.
Burack showed a map of the United States and talked about how quickly cannabis laws have changed in the country since Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize cannabis for adult use in 2012. And, since then, Canada legalized, and legalization is also imminent in Mexico.
“The world can move very quickly,” Burack said, adding that the goal is “responsible public policy around marijuana with the rapid evolution of this industry and the rapid, rapid evolution of regulation. We want to try not to be reactive.”
One hard lesson for Burack, who was a local police chief when voters passed the state’s adult use initiative, was the importance of engagement.
“I think I can say candidly, this was probably one of those issues that we thought might be defeated by the voters, but it was not,” Burack said. “We probably would all admit that it would have been better to be at the table and engage in that conversation as that constitutional amendment was being drafted.”
Burack said that there are two areas that he’s thinking about as Colorado’s legal market matures. The first: residential delivery for medical cannabis is coming January 1. And, public consumption is “an issue that we have wrestled with long and hard in Colorado.” The state will license hospitality establishments starting January 1.
Wright, of the Illinois Attorney General’s office, provided an Illinois viewpoint, highlighting the foundation laid by Rep. Kelly Cassidy and Sen. Heather Steans, who spent two years traveling the state to hold town halls to gather feedback about cannabis law reform from voters and lawmakers.
“Other states have done the ballot, but it’s very important to note that we did it legislatively because we didn’t have to go back and promulgate rules,” Wright said, referencing legislative rulemaking that happens once a ballot measure passes. “Instead, a lot of what we did happened over the past two years of negotiations.”
Most legalization discussions today have a strong social equity component, and Virginia’s earliest cannabis policy discussions did, too. Wright, of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, returned to join Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, for a panel called “Social Equity and the Legalization Landscape.” Franklin gave a brief history of the racist roots of cannabis law enforcement, and what led to those policies.
Wright called Illinois social equity program “a three legged stool,” because without one of the legs, the stool would tip. The first part is automatic expungement of cannabis-related offenses. Next, programs to help those affected by the war on drugs as they enter the cannabis industry. The last leg of the stool is the R3 program (recovery, reinvest and renew), through which a statewide board redistributes 25% of the revenue from cannabis sales to social programs within select communities.
For a panel discussion about the hemp supply chain, panelists Bill Sieber, the First Assistant Attorney General and board member of Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan for the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, and Betsy Booren, senior vice president of Science and Technology for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, spoke about consumer viewpoints and certification and standardization.
Booren spoke about the medical benefits of CBD and consumer behaviors. She asked the audience to consider how many consumer packaged goods they use every morning, from toothpaste to makeup to breakfast.
“You will find hundreds of products that you are exposed to every day. So when we talk about product safety with CBD, I take that very seriously because the exposure to consumers is really quite large,” Booren said. She added that the patchwork of inconsistent, often contradictory state and local regulations have created considerable consumer confusion.
“So until we have this clear framework, our members will stay out of the marketplace, and I think that does a disservice to the consumers that we try to sell to,” Booren said. “If you talk to those at FDA, one of our strongest barriers right now is getting good research.”
A final panel addressed the changing environment for law enforcement, led by Robert Mikos, a law professor at Vanderbilt Law School, and John Sprague, director of cannabis industry risk management for The Edward Davis Company and a retired detective with the Massachusetts State Police.
Sprague spoke about local control, security, and how to ensure that only those 21 and older are participating in the legal cannabis market. He also mentioned a more nuanced part of operating a cannabis business in Massachusetts.
“What we have found is the nuisance factor is perhaps the most challenging concept for a continual operation of a dispensary. Even though voters overwhelmingly approved the legalization of marijuana within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we are confronted, if not every day, every week, with the concept of NIMBY, not in my backyard,” Sprague said.