Virginia lawmakers approved adult use cannabis two years ago, but the first legal sales feel farther away than ever. With opposition in the Governor’s mansion, what happens next is likely to remain unclear until after next week’s election, during which every seat in the General Assembly is up for a vote.
If Democrats reclaim the House of Delegates, and keep the Senate, cannabis advocates feel better about the chances for legal sales in the near future. But Democratic Sen. Adam Ebbin, one of the leading voices on cannabis legalization in the legislature, said the opposite could happen if Republicans take control.
“We could possibly be the first state to go backwards,” Ebbin told Cannabis Wire.
To recap how we got here: in 2021, Virginia lawmakers passed legislation legalizing cannabis for adults. But, critically, while the law allowed for the home cultivation of up to four plants and possession of one ounce of cannabis starting that year, it delayed retail sales until 2024. Parts of the legislation also required “reenactment,” meaning it would need another vote from legislators in 2022.
When legalization passed, Democrats controlled both chambers of the General Assembly and the governorship. But they saw political winds shift in November 2021. Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race and Democrats lost control of the House of Delegates.
Republicans have been less than enthusiastic about cannabis legalization in Virginia. During the 2022 legislative session, dozens of bills on cannabis were introduced but only two passed and they both pertained to medical cannabis. Fast forward to 2023, and cannabis legislation hasn’t fared much better. None of the bills opening up access to cannabis made it to the governor’s desk. In fact, a budget provision reduces funds for the newly created Cannabis Control Authority.
One bill would have allowed the state’s existing medical cannabis licensees to start selling cannabis to all adults this year, and for the Cannabis Control Authority to begin issuing additional licenses on July 1, 2024. While that bill, Senate Bill 1133, cleared the Democrat-controlled Senate, it died in the House without a hearing.
Youngkin has been tight-lipped about his position on cannabis legalization for adult use. But this summer, his office gave its most definite statement yet. Youngkin-appointee Joseph Guthrie, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the governor “has stated that he is not interested in any further moves towards legalization of adult recreational use marijuana.” Gurthie was speaking at a Virginia Cannabis Public Health Advisory Council meeting.
Youngkin has said that it’s up to lawmakers to bring him legislation to fix the current situation. But many Democrats believe Guthrie’s statement was evidence of the Republican obstruction they’ve experienced in Richmond.
“House Republicans basically made it pretty clear that they weren’t going to take any action until the governor gave some clarity about what he would support,” Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell told Cannabis Wire. “He refused to say anything, and then the session was over.”
The statement from Guthrie dimmed the future of legal sales for adults considerably, even if it merely confirmed what some legislators suspected. Stuck in a holding pattern where possession is allowed and Virginians can grow at home, Democratic lawmakers remain noncommittal on next steps until after this year’s election.
If Democrats regain control of the House of Delegates, resolving the current limbo on cannabis could shoot to the top of the priority list in Richmond. Democrats even believe passing a bill could start a meaningful conversation with Youngkin.
“Of course, he could potentially veto something,” Ebbin told Cannabis Wire. “But I think having a bill that passes both chambers forces the issue a bit more, and it would force him to engage a bit more in conversation over the topic.”
Youngkin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Ebbin understands this tactic still might not work and says Virginia might have to wait until a new governor is in office. Surovell noted that Senate Democrats have also supported putting a non-binding referendum on the ballot to show Virginians’ support for legalizing adult use. (Virginia is not one of the states where voters can amend the constitution or state statutes through ballot initiatives.)
But if Republicans take control of the Senate, Ebbin predicts cannabis for adults could be in trouble.
Celebrating ‘Baby Steps’
Lawmakers did make a minor, but important change to the medical cannabis program this year: oversight of the program will move from the Board of Pharmacy to the Cannabis Control Agency.
“Having a cannabis-specific regulator will bring significant improvements to the medical program for both operators and patients,” JM Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Cannabis Wire in an email.
The first medical cannabis dispensaries in Virginia opened in 2020. The state only allows one licensee for each of its five health districts. So far, only four have been permitted: Dharma Pharmaceuticals (which was acquired by Green Thumb Industries in 2021), Columbia Care, Green Leaf Medical of Virginia, and Dalitso (which is owned by Jushi Holdings). A fifth licensee, MedMen—which bought the license from PharmaCann in a failed merger deal—was revoked in 2020 when the state determined the company had violated the terms to receive a license.
With the future of adult use in doubt, not everyone in the industry agrees on what the next steps should be for the state’s other cannabis markets—-medical use and hemp. The state’s various lobbying and trade groups have differing ideas on where lawmakers should focus next session, which begins January 10. Jason Blanchette, president of the Virginia Cannabis Association, says expansion of the medical program could be one change for lawmakers to consider.
“We’re certainly putting the work in trying to figure out how we can best accomplish something because right now, with the governor’s stance on cannabis, I think we’re just going to have to celebrate baby steps at this point,” Blanchette told Cannabis Wire.
The hemp industry saw new restrictions during the 2023 session. Senate Bill 903 requires permits for sellers of intoxicating hemp-derived cannabinoids, such as delta-8 products. Youngkin added an annual $1,000 registration fee for the permit when the bill reached his desk. Further, it limits hemp products to 2 mg THC per package, which prompted a lawsuit from hemp operators. This week, a federal judge disagreed with the plaintiffs, saying they did not demonstrate “irreparable injury” from this bill.
Meanwhile, unregulated sellers have popped up. Stores that “gift” cannabis—giving it away when customers buy some other piece of merchandise—have proliferated throughout the state. The issue even caught the attention of Attorney General Jason Miyares, who released an opinion in April stating gifting was illegal.
For advocates of legalization in the state, good news is in short supply. Most expect to wait until a new governor is in office in 2026 before progress is made. But Ebbin remains optimistic that if Democrats win majorities in the legislature, they can get a bill to Youngkin’s desk.
“The governor certainly showed himself to be an obstacle rather than a constructive participant in the legislative process, but we’re not willing to write him off yet.”