Virginia Republicans Push Back on Cannabis Bill

With a new majority in the House of Delegates, Virginia Republicans are seeking changes to the Virginia marijuana legalization bill passed by state lawmakers last year. Republican lawmakers have advanced several proposals to change the legalization bill, including moving up the date of licensed retail sales, altering the amount of cannabis taxes and how the revenue is spent, as well as potential amendments to the legislation’s social equity provisions.

When Virginia’s marijuana legalization bill was passed along strict party lines in 2021, Democrats held a majority in both houses of the state legislature. But Republicans regained control of the House of Delegates in the November election, and now hold a 52-48 majority in the chamber. Democrats maintained their hold on the state Senate with a razor-thin majority of 21-19.

Under Virginia’s cannabis legalization bill, possession of up to one ounce of marijuana will become legal on January 1, 2024. At the same time, regulations governing the production and sale of adult-use cannabis will go into effect, and legal sales of recreational marijuana will begin at licensed dispensaries. Another provision of the legislation requires lawmakers to take a vote on the regulatory plan, giving Republicans an opportunity to propose changes to the regulations.

“The overriding top-tier concern is that we have to have a regulatory structure in place for retail sales that does not encourage the black market,” said Garren Shipley, a spokesperson for House Speaker Todd Gilbert.

Newly elected Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has said that he has no plans to seek a repeal of the legalization of marijuana possession in Virginia. But he has expressed concerns about some provisions of the plan to legalize commercial cannabis production and sales.

“It includes forced unionization, is concerning to law enforcement, and establishes an unstable market that includes anti-competitive business provisions that set Virginia up to fail,” said Macaulay Porter, press secretary for Youngkin. “He’s ready to work in good faith to address these and other issues in concert with the General Assembly.”

Several Bills Already Filed

So far, at least eight bills have been filed by Republican lawmakers to amend Virginia’s cannabis legalization statute, according to the Associated Press. Several would move up the date that personal possession is legalized. Another proposal from Del. Michael Webert, House Bill 950, would make several significant changes to the regulatory plan, including cutting the overall tax rate on cannabis from 21% to 10% in an effort to help licensed operators compete with the unregulated market. Another provision would redirect the 30% of tax revenues now dedicated to a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund, which would invest in communities harmed by cannabis prohibition, to a fund to improve school infrastructure statewide. 

“We are trying to ensure that the money goes to where it’s most needed,” Webert said. “To be in a good school environment, to provide a good, safe school building and an atmosphere in which a child can learn will be a great asset for that person’s future.”

Webert’s bill would also scrap a provision of the legalization bill that gives priority for cannabis business licenses to social equity applicants, including those who have been convicted of marijuana offenses and their family members. The lawmaker defended the change, saying that “I believe that if you commit a crime and serve your time, you should have a seat at the table, but it shouldn’t put you at the front of the line.” The bill retains provisions that give priority to applicants from economically disadvantaged areas of the state and those who have attended one of Virginia’s historically Black colleges or universities. 

Another proposal from Republican Sen. Tommy Norment, Senate Bill 107, would redirect the 30% of cannabis taxes now reserved for the reinvestment fund to the state’s general fund. Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, a group advocating for cannabis legalization in Virginia, objected to the attempts to roll back social equity provisions of last year’s bill, saying “I’m really struck by this attempt to defund equity and reinvestment when we have committed to legalizing in a way to bring some kind of benefit to people impacted by the war on drugs.”

Other Republican-sponsored bills would move up the launch date for legal adult-use cannabis sales by allowing existing medical marijuana dispensaries to serve retail customers beginning in 2023. Additional proposals would prioritize cannabis cultivation permits for farmers now licensed to grow hemp in Virginia or those in economically distressed areas of the state. But despite all the efforts by Republicans to change the legalization measure passed last year, activists are confident legalization will prevail.

“Fortunately for Virginians, there is clear bipartisan support for taking action this session to regulate adult-use sales,” JM Pedini, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told the Washington Post. “Continuing to cede control of cannabis in the commonwealth to untaxed, unregulated, illicit operators poses substantial risk to both consumer and public safety. It is not in the best interest of Virginians to delay retail sales one minute more.”

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