On Tuesday, Virginia lawmakers heard dozens of public comments on a legalization bill backed by Governor Ralph Northam, and they debated specific areas of cannabis policy.
The Virginia Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee created a Subcommittee on Marijuana, and the group held its first meeting Tuesday morning to discuss SB 1406. Sales could be live by early 2023, but lawmakers will first have to agree on the details, from who will regulate the state’s new industry to local control. The subcommittee will meet again on Wednesday morning.
(Read Cannabis Wire’s extensive coverage of Virginia’s path toward legalization, and the steps that lawmakers, officials, and advocates have taken in the years leading up to this bill.)
Tuesday’s meeting lasted several hours, and the subcommittee’s discussion often returned to the question of whether the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (ABC) should regulate adult use cannabis.
Senator Scott Surovell said that the “largest, biggest, most overarching” question facing the subcommittee is whether cannabis should be regulated within the ABC, or a separate agency.
Senator Ryan McDougle agreed.
“One of the—candidly—criticisms I’ve had of ABC is that they are more set up as a law enforcement-type entity on the regulatory side, instead of a regulatory-type entity,” McDougle said.
Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Brad Copenhaver said that the ABC is the only state agency in the Commonwealth that has the experience of regulating a product that is “as controlled, and also a product that was formerly totally prohibited,” and that the program could get up and running faster if ABC takes on cannabis.
“We know that we can gain a lot of efficiencies and a lot of knowledge working with ABC. And, setting up this new program, we know that we could do it more quickly with ABC, that they have the resources to kind of hit the ground running, and the expertise,” Copenhaver said.
Mark Gribben, chief legislative analyst for the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), highlighted some of the pros and cons of moving cannabis under ABC’s purview versus starting a new entity.
Gribben agreed that choosing an existing agency would mean that it would be “more likely” to get legal cannabis off the ground “a little quicker.”
“There is less of a risk of an unexpected delay happening because the agency is there and the functions are there. Implementation costs are probably a little lower,” Gribben said, adding that a new agency, in contrast, could have some advantages. “Unlike ABC, which would be taking on a third mission in addition to our regulation of alcohol sales, a new agency would just be focused on cannabis regulation. That could allow,” for example, “more focus on some special initiatives such as social equity.”
Travis Hill, with the state’s ABC, said that the agency’s approach is to “work with” business owners to ensure that they understand the rules, and are in compliance.
“We’re a regulatory agency first, with law enforcement powers. We’ve certainly gotten the message, if you will, on making sure that we have that proper focus,” Hill said.
The legislation is centered on principles that Northam said must be present in any legislation he signs: social, racial, and economic equity, protecting young people, upholding the Virginia Clean Indoor Act, and data collection. The subcommittee didn’t address expungement or cannabis-related charges, as this topic will come up if and when the legislation is referred to the Judiciary Committee; additionally, taxes will be taken up by Finance and Appropriations for consideration.
While equity wasn’t discussed at length on Tuesday, Virginia’s legislation is centered on three areas: equitable business participation by streamlining the path for people who have been disproportionately harmed by cannabis enforcement; criminal record expungement; and community reinvestment. Expungement would be automatic for most cannabis crimes, funded by $25 million allocated in Northam’s budget, and would begin immediately after the bill is enacted, starting on July 1.
Copenhaver said that all of the equity provisions are equally important, and that “they all work together.”
“This bill is comprehensive when it comes to social equity. And we think that in terms of undoing the past harms of criminalization, we need all of these principles working together,” he said.
Members of the public were given 60 seconds to express support or opposition to the bill, or to make specific requests for amendments.
Patrick Cushing, a lobbyist who spoke on behalf of AAA, reiterated the travel agency’s “standing position of opposing legalization.”
Despite their opposition, AAA shared some recommendations, highlighting what they see as a need for more education about the risks of driving while impaired by cannabis.
“There are definitely some significant protections for public health and safety. But one of the things that we found in the bill is that there is a lack of direct public awareness associated with the dangers of drugged driving,” Cushing said.
Marty Jewell, chair of the Cannabis Equity Coalition of Virginia, supports legalization, but recommends that an independent regulatory agency be set up, and that “anti-monopoly” provisions be added to the legislation.
Mike Wilson, of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, expressed support for legalization, but asked for better support for workers.
UFCW wants to ensure that there is the “opportunity for labor peace to be included in the licensure piece in this legislation, so that workers have the opportunity to have a voice in this industry. Not everybody is going to be an owner, but there’s going to be a lot of jobs available here and we need to make sure that those are good jobs for Virginia families,” Wilson said.
Nita Mensia, a farmer, spoke about the declining numbers of Black farmers, and made several requests to support small-scale African American farmers, including reduced licensing fees for Black farmers.
“This is an opportunity for the marijuana crop to provide a sustainable income and to help repair the damage that has been done in the Black farming community,” Mensia said.
Sheba Williams, executive director of Nolef Turns in Virginia, requested that officials take more of an educational approach to young adults who use cannabis, rather than punitive, even if they’re under the legal age of consumption after legalization.
“Speaking to social equity and protecting youth, I recommend that we do not commit new crime and add a $250 fine for 18 to 20 year olds, and instead give education opportunities for youth who are indulging in the use of cannabis,” Williams said.
NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini, who also serves as the executive director of Virginia NORML, and served as a member of the state’s Marijuana Work Group, asked that, as the new regulatory agency absorbs the state’s existing medical cannabis program, that an advisory board be created to focus on medical cannabis-related issues.
“Currently the legislation does lack employment and parental rights protections for those who are either participating in the industry or are consuming or cultivating responsibly,” Pedini added, referencing legal adult use cannabis.
Paul Judge, owner of Theratrue, a Black-owned medical cannabis company in Virginia, said that the proposed social equity program is a “great start,” but suggested that the residency requirement be “edited,” in part to to ensure that there are “qualified Black applicants.”
Judge described how, when he started his cannabis company in Virginia, 10 Black Virginians joined as partners. But, Judge cautioned, “for Blacks to be successful in this industry, we must collaborate with our peers across state lines.” Judge suggested additional criteria be added to the definition of social equity applicants, including those who have attended a Historically Black College and University, as well as business owners who donate profits to over-policed groups.
“It is our hope that Virginia can avoid some of the complications and challenges in states like Illinois, where similar standards have resulted in awarding zero social equity licenses to Black applicants,” Judge said.