Virginia lawmakers vote to legalize marijuana, but House and Senate still have to agree on details

By: - February 5, 2021 5:14 pm

Freshly harvested marijuana flowers are processed at Green Leaf Medical in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/Style Weekly)

Virginia lawmakers voted Friday to legalize marijuana, agreeing in principle to legislation that would allow retail sales to begin in 2024 and expunge many past convictions.

“Our commonwealth’s prohibition on cannabis has clearly failed,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who sponsored the bill in the Senate with Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth. “We’ve had hundreds of thousands of Virginians branded as criminals and disadvantaged in various ways, and the war on marijuana has disproportionately targeted and impacted Virginia’s communities of color.”

The bill passed the House on a 55-42 party line vote, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing. The measure drew modest bi-partisan support in the Senate, with two Republicans joining the chamber’s 21 Democrats in voting for the bill.

It’s a significant step for a state where, until last summer, possessing even small amounts of the drug was punishable with jail time. But lawmakers still need to work out major differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill before it heads to Gov. Ralph Northam, who has endorsed the idea and was instrumental in shaping the proposal.

The version the House adopted maintains all criminal penalties until Jan. 1, 2024, when the first dispensaries would be allowed to begin retail sales.

The Senate proposes legalizing possession of an ounce or less beginning this year. But they’ve included language in the bill that requires the General Assembly to vote on the issue again next year to finalize rules that will govern the legal retail marketplace.

The House and Senate have also endorsed different rules governing the size and scale of businesses that enter the new marketplace. The House proposes barring vertical integration, in which one company could hold licenses to grow, process and sell products, which they hope will encourage small businesses. The Senate wants to allow businesses to hold multiple licenses, but proposes charging a $1 million fee for the privilege.

There is also disagreement surrounding whether local governments should be allowed to prohibit retail sales within their jurisdiction and whether people should be allowed to grow up to two mature marijuana plants at home in their yard or only indoors.

Both versions of the legislation set a nearly 30 percent tax rate on retail sales, which would eventually generate an estimated $183 million in new state revenue every year, according to state estimates. Lawmakers are currently planning to split the money between pre-K programs in low-income localities, social equity programs and substance abuse and health initiatives.

The bills would eventually provide for the automatic expungement of past misdemeanor marijuana convictions and offer a petition-based expungement process for felony charges. People currently imprisoned on marijuana charges would be entitled to a resentencing hearing before a judge.

Supporters called legalization a matter of racial justice, noting that Black residents were more than three times more likely than White residents to face criminal penalties for marijuana possession. And they’ve stressed equity programs written into the bill that promise funding for community programs in areas that experienced high rates of marijuana enforcement.

The legislation also proposes a portion of new marijuana business licenses go to social equity applicants, defined as people or family members of people with marijuana charges on their records. The program would also be open to people who attended a historically Black college or university or live in areas that experienced high rates of arrests or are deemed economically distressed. As currently drafted, such applicants would get early access to licenses, application assistance and interests free business loans from the state.

Some of those provisions drew pushback from some Republicans. Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, said he had planned to support the bill but worried the proposed rules would interfere with fair competition among businesses. Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, called the provisions a non starter. And Sen. Bill DeSteph, D-Virginia Beach, argued it amounted to discrimination.

“You cannot provide preferential treatment lifting up one class or group of citizens without diminishing the rights of another,” DeSteph said.

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, who sponsored the legislation, has argued during committee meetings that they equity provisions are essential to redressing past wrongs.

“People who look like me don’t have generational wealth,” Herring said. “This bill is a business opportunity for probably some of the sharpest minds out there and an opportunity for them to participate in a legal market.”

Other GOP lawmakers focused on the potential for increased addiction and drug use in their floor speeches, echoing concerns raised during public hearings by a coalition that included the Virginia Catholic Conference, Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and the American Automobile Association.

“Today’s votes in Richmond are the result of a rushed process where hardly any time was given to thoroughly examine the potential harms of commercialization and voices of the many experts and professionals from the fields of substance abuse prevention and medicine were essentially stifled,” Kevin Sabet, the president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said in a statement. “This is extremely unfortunate.”

Supporters argued the legislation addresses those concerns with provisions aimed at protecting youth by limiting sales to people 21 and older, requiring substance abuse counseling for minors caught with the drug and dedicating 25 percent of funding to treatment programs.

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, a practicing medical doctor and one of two Republicans who voted for the bill Friday, said she supported her bill because it would reduce the potential harms that can stem from drug use.

“I think adult regulation is a way to make sure we have control over the products that our community is being exposed to,” she said. “I like to look at this as adult regulation and think it’s a starting point for us to go forward.”


Correction: An early version of this story misstated the breakdown of Friday’s vote in the House of Delegates.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.