After a thorough and steady push toward cannabis legalization, lawmakers in Virginia have sent adult use legislation to Governor Ralph Northam’s desk. As written, personal possession and home cultivation wouldn’t become legal until sales begin in 2024, and several provisions are set to be reconsidered in 2022.
Back in 2019, the state’s Attorney General Mark Herring kicked off conversations about cannabis reform, even hosting a cannabis summit to discuss everything from decriminalization to full adult use. By early 2020, decriminalization legislation was on Northam’s desk and signed into law. Shortly thereafter, a work group began to compile what would ultimately become a nearly 500-page report outlining recommendations for legalization. With that report in hand, in November, Northam called on lawmakers to pass legislation in 2021 to legalize cannabis for adult use.
And, that’s exactly what they’ve done. On Saturday, after some tense last-minute debate over key differences between the two versions of the adult use legislation, lawmakers narrowly approved SB 1406 and HB 2312, which would legalize cannabis possession and sales for adults 21 and older. Northam could outright sign the legislation, but he could also suggest amendments.
“The measure succeeding really is another step forward for cannabis justice in Virginia. There were extraordinary amounts of compromise involved in conference committee negotiations, and while the legislation is far from ideal, it does move the ball forward significantly,” NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini, who also serves as the Executive Director of Virginia NORML, told Cannabis Wire.
“NORML’s top priority is to move earlier the date for legal possession and personal cultivation for adults 21 and older. These policy changes need not be tied to the date of retail sales, and we encourage those who agree to let Governor Northam know.”
Indeed, one major sticking point came down to timing. While both bills set the start date for sales in 2024, the Senate aimed to make simple possession legal this year, while the House did not want simple possession legal until sales go live. Ultimately, lawmakers agreed that adults will not be able to legally possess or home grow cannabis until the enactment date, which is now January 1, 2024. Also, several parts of the legislation, for example, with regard to new penalties, will require “re-enactment,” which means that they would not move forward until lawmakers re-enact them by vote next year.
Other differences involved local control and licensing. The Senate wanted to allow localities to opt out, via referendum, of allowing cannabis shops. The House did not, but the Senate prevailed. And when it came to vertical integration, which allows an entity to hold licenses for everything from cultivation to sale, the House did not want to allow for it but the Senate did. Ultimately, it will be allowed for microbusinesses, and for existing medical cannabis shops, which are already vertically integrated, so long as they provide an equity plan and pay $1 million toward the state’s equity funds.
Several other cannabis-related bills are on the governor’s desk, including one that would allow for sales of cannabis flower to medical cannabis patients.
If Gov. Northam signs the adult use legislation, a newly created Cannabis Control Authority will get to work this summer on crafting regulations for the new industry. And, Virginia would become the sixteenth state (and D.C.) to legalize adult use cannabis.
Cannabis would be taxed at 21%, which, with state and local taxes, would put the total rate at roughly 30%. Revenue would be allocated toward pre-kindergarten programs (40%), equity (30%), substance use programs and prevention (25%), and other public health efforts.
The legislation, which would give “preference” to social equity applicants in licensing, also establishes a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board that will oversee a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund.
In an interview with Cannabis Wire last year, AG Herring stressed that it was necessary for legalization to address the disproportionate rate of arrests between Black and white cannabis consumers, despite similar rates of use.
Herring told Cannabis Wire that “the social equity and racial equity concerns are real in Virginia, and that disparity cannot be discounted or ignored. It has been proven, and legalization will help address that.”
In January, Gov. Northam focused on equity when he spoke about legalization during his State of the Commonwealth address.
“It’s time,” he said, to “make marijuana legal and end the current system rooted in inequity. We’ve done the research and we can do this the right way, leading with social equity, public health, and public safety.”
So, too, did Senator Adam Ebbin, one of the top backers of the legislation, who noted that a top priority for 2021 is to “create a legal adult-use market for cannabis that will equitably address the unfortunate impacts caused by the misguided war on marijuana.”