Virginia: Cannabis Legalization Bills Clear Key Hurdle

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Virginia lawmakers have moved at breakneck speed to move cannabis legalization legislation through the General Assembly. 

On Friday, both chambers passed a comprehensive plan proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam. Friday marked the deadline by which a bill introduced in one chamber must be passed to the other. The Senate passed their version 23 to 15; the House vote was 55 to 42. Specifically, the House passed HB 2312 and the Senate passed SB 1406. Now, lawmakers will form a committee to combine their versions into the final legislation that the chambers will then pass on to the governor.

Virginia has been on a fast-track to legalize since Northam included cannabis legalization in his budget in December. During his State of the Commonwealth speech, Northam reiterated his support for legalization, calling specifically for legalization centered on equity and acknowledging that the criminal justice system “treats different people unfairly.” 

“Marijuana is a great example,” Northam said, noting that while white and Black people use cannabis at similar rates, Black people are three and a half times more likely to be charged with a cannabis-related crime, and are almost four times as likely to be convicted. “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.” 

Revenue would be divided up as follows: 40% would go toward pre-kindergarten for at risk 3 and 4 year-olds; 30% would be earmarked for an equity reinvestment fund; 25% would go to addiction prevention and treatment services; and 5% would go toward public health initiatives. 

Equity, though, was a topic of some disagreement on Friday. Virginia’s bill seeks to establish equity three ways: expungement, funding to communities disproportionately harmed by enforcement of cannabis laws, and the goal of helping those who have been harmed by cannabis enforcement to get into the cannabis industry. 

Senator Bill DeSteph, who represents Virginia Beach, pushed back on the equity provisions. 

“Everybody in this chamber went through training on discrimination,” DeSteph said. “You cannot provide preferential treatment, lifting up one class or group of citizens over another without diminishing the rights of the other class or group of citizens. What we’re trying to do here is perpetuate the same thing we’re trying to stop.”

Senator Jeremy McPike, who served as chair of the Subcommittee on Marijuana, said that the committee specifically reviewed this topic in “very much detail,” and that the proposed policy does not discriminate. 

“The sections,” McPike said, “were written to be intentionally constitutional, that they, in fact, do not discriminate. They could be a white person, Asian, Black, any number of categories meeting the definitions under the social equity based on the multiple layers of definitions within there. Nothing excludes different classes of folks from attending historically black colleges, nor growing up within areas that have been highly impacted by over policing.

In January, a Subcommittee on Marijuana formed to hammer out the details. One important amendment to the legislation was the suggested creation of an independent cannabis regulatory agency, rather than going with existing alcohol regulators. This could push the schedule for legal sales back a year to allow for the new regulatory entity to be launched. 

“The subcommittee has come to the conclusion that moving forward with an independent agency to deal with it is the right solution,” McPike said during one of the Subcommittee meetings. 

“I think that both the public comment,” McPike said, “as well as the subcommittee’s discussion, has identified that this line of business is much different than the current work of ABC,” he added, referencing cannabis. He noted that the social equity provisions that the Northam administration has “laid out lent itself to ensure that we have a regulatory team and structure that is focused on those components” and that cannabis’ “business model is a significant enough departure to warrant an independent agency.” 

In November, Northam’s cannabis legalization workgroup concluded months of meetings with a nearly 500-page report that provided recommendations on what legalization could look like in the state. 

The lengthy report came after a study released by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission found that legalization in Virginia could generate more than $180 million in annual tax revenue, and more than 11,000 jobs, once the program matures to its fifth year of operation.

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