Workers at gLeaf Medical tend to plants in a grow room at the Richmond medical marijuana dispensary. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Nearly a year after Virginia lawmakers voted to legalize possession of marijuana, they remain divided on what — if anything — to do about people currently imprisoned on marijuana charges.
The committee of House and Senate lawmakers tasked with making recommendations for the legislative session that begins Wednesday concluded its work this week with a proposal to begin recreational sales in 2023 — a year earlier than initially planned.
But like last year — when resentencing provisions were left out of the original bill — lawmakers said they ran out of time to reach an agreement on how to handle the issue, leaving the debate for the legislative session.
The Virginia Department of Corrections says 10 people are currently serving sentences in which the most serious offense was marijuana. In all of the cases, the people were convicted of transporting five or more pounds of marijuana into the state.
All 10 are expected to be released in the next six years, according to the department, which presented the data Monday to the assembly’s Cannabis Oversight Commission.
Another 560 people are serving sentences partially related to a marijuana offense but have also been found guilty of more serious offenses.
Democrats on the committee said they supported allowing the 560 people in the latter category to petition for a resentencing hearing to allow a judge to decide whether they were giving a longer sentence than they might have otherwise faced as a result of the marijuana charge.
But they disagreed on how to handle the 10 people serving time solely for marijuana convictions.
Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth, called for legislation that would provide for their immediate release.
Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, said he planned to propose legislation that would also require those 10 people to petition for a resentencing hearing and for a judge to decide whether and how their sentences should be altered. Ebbin reasoned that it remains a felony to transport five or more pounds of marijuana into the state under the revised law.
Scott responded that, “I just visited a medical provider last week and there were thousands of pounds in there, so yeah I think those 10 people deserve a chance to come home.”
The three Republicans on the committee, meanwhile, have not taken a stance. Unlike last year, when Democrats began the process of legalizing the drug on a series of party-line votes, the GOP now occupies the Executive Mansion and holds a narrow majority in the House of Delegates.
And so far, Republicans have said little about how they plan to approach the issue beyond offering broad assurances that they won’t seek to repeal the legislation.
“I think whether or not you support marijuana or don’t’ support marijuana, the reality is we already have laws on the books,” said Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell. “So I think it’s only responsible Virginia fall under a very well regulated market.”
After the meeting Morefield said the House GOP caucus has not arrived at a consensus on how to deal with people in prison for marijuana-related convictions. Likewise, Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said Senate Republicans are also still discussing the issue.
Legislation introduced by individual Republican lawmakers so far would gut social equity provisions championed by Democrats and give cities and counties more discretion to block marijuana sales at the local level.
Incoming Gov. Glenn Youngkin has made limited remarks on the subject, telling Virginia Business in an interview last month that “When it comes to commercialization, I think there is a lot of work to be done. I’m not against it, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
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