Marijuana grows in Richmond at Green Leaf, a state licensed medical processor and dispensary. (Scott Elmquist/Style Weekly)
The Virginia Senate voted to speed up the timeline for retail marijuana sales Tuesday, approving a plan that would allow existing medical dispensaries to open sales to the general public in September.
And, in what senators framed as a bid to give Virginia farmers a piece of what is expected to be a lucrative recreational market, the legislation also opens early sales to a handful of large industrial hemp processors.
“This ensures consumers can purchase safe, regulated products legally,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, the bill’s patron.
The proposed timeline represents a 16-month head start for the businesses over the 2024 start date still contemplated for the broader industry. But while the legislation cleared the Senate on a bipartisan, 23-16 vote, its final passage remains far from assured at the halfway point in Virginia’s legislative session.
It and other marijuana bills still have to make it through the House of Delegates, where the GOP majority remains divided on how to proceed and was unwilling to even docket marijuana bills filed by its own members.
The legislation also faces criticism from legalization advocates who accuse Democratic lawmakers of abandoning racial justice commitments made last year, which the party made central to its legalization push.
At the urging of former Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, lawmakers had initially planned to delay all sales until 2024 to give the state ample of time to regulate the new industry and develop a social-equity program aimed at making sure Black Virginians, who were more than twice as likely to face prosecution for marijuana possession under prohibition, could compete in the market.
But lawmakers, who formed a work group to study the issue over the summer, concluded that the decision to legalize possession but not sales had so emboldened the black market that lawmakers needed to provide legal avenues to obtain the drug. And they argue the fees the state plans to charge companies that enter the market early — $6 million each for pharmaceutical processors and $500,000 for hemp processors — would provide necessary funding for a loan program to seed new social-equity operators.
The legislation also requires early licensees to serve as incubators for at least five qualified social-equity licensees.
Advocates for the social-equity programs say they’re unconvinced, arguing similar programs have been unsuccessful in other states that gave medical marijuana businesses early access to the retail market. They also doubt that allowing limited early sales will deter the illegal market.
“We cannot allow our communities most impacted by the war on drugs to take a backseat to the financial interests of medical operators and hemp processors,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, who leads the organization Marijuana Justice, which has joined dozens of other social justice groups to urge lawmakers to delay sales.
As the legislation made its way to the floor of the Senate, lawmakers have mostly focused on whether to grant industrial hemp processors early access to the industry alongside medical processors.
The hemp industry and its supporters argued that three out-of-state companies currently control the four medical licenses whereas industrial hemp processors are more likely to be based in Virginia.
Hemp, a non-intoxicating variety of cannabis, became legal to farm and process in 2018 and large hemp processors told lawmakers they have the expertise to transition quickly to intoxicating varieties of the plant.
Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, framed them as local farmers who “get their fingers into the dirt.”
It is unclear who precisely would qualify for the 10 licenses set aside for hemp processors. The legislation limits eligibility for early licensure to industrial hemp processors registered with the state before March of last year who have processed at least 40,000 pounds of the plant. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which licenses the companies, said the information is considered proprietary and is exempt from disclosure under state open record laws.
The legislation now heads to the House of Delegates, where the GOP majority has given mixed signals on marijuana legislation. Heading into the legislative session, House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said the caucus viewed the unfinished marijuana legalization as a mess left by Democrats that the GOP would clean up.
But after GOP lawmakers offered their own proposals for legalization and speeding up sales, the party’s leaders refused to docket them for hearings.
Since then, members of the party have displayed an unusual reluctance to discuss the issue, suggesting it remains a touchy subject within the caucus. Gilbert’s spokesman, Garren Shipley, who early in the session had assured reporters the House would act on the issue, declined to comment Tuesday when asked why the bills had not been docketed.
Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, who filed a bill advancing legalization that called for lower taxes and a focus on school funding, said members of his caucus are still discussing the issue.
“You’ve got folks who would like to see early sales, folks who would like to see sales postponed so we can make sure we have a solid regulatory process and folks who just don’t want it in the first place,” Webert said.
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