More dispensaries OK’d for Virginia’s soon-to-open medical marijuana program

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The laws governing Virginia’s soon-to-launch medical marijuana program are once again getting a little looser.

In the four years since its inception, it has morphed from a CBD-only-program limited to patients with intractable epilepsy to a full-fledged medical marijuana program that includes products ranging from vape pens to lollipops.

This year, with licensed growers on the verge of opening this summer after clearing the long permitting and regulatory process, lawmakers agreed to another expansion that will increase the number of storefronts the products can be sold out of from five to 30.

The producers who sought the change called it essential to ensuring patients can actually access the products.

The program is limited to five licensees. And as initially planned, the products had to be grown, processed and sold from the same building. That meant some patients would have to travel hours to the nearest producers.

Under the legislation passed by the General Assembly and awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature, each of the five producers will be allowed to open an additional five satellite dispensaries.

“Currently, as you know, we’ve got about 8 million people in the state and only five facilities to serve them,” said Aaron Lopez, a spokesman for Dalitso, which won the license to operate a facility in Manassas that, before the change was approved, would have been the only location serving Northern Virginia.

The licensee in the Richmond area, Green Leaf medical, told Richmond BizSense it was eyeing “former bank branches with drive-thrus, because they’re a good fit for dispensaries.”

Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, proposed the legislation. The bill was held up after the General Assembly adjourned last month by amendments proposed by Northam. He recommended and lawmakers have since approved new language that clarifies the program is not limited to “low-THC products.” Patient advocates said that without the change, doctors and pharmacists could still recommend the same strength-THC products, but that the capsules or other deliver devices would have been larger than necessary.

A proposal to extend the program to the sale of flower — the plant’s raw, smokable buds — died early in the legislative process.

Lawmakers also passed legislation making the program explicitly legal. As initially drafted, it was permitted and regulated by the state, but operators and patients could still technically be arrested by law enforcement and taken to court, where the charges would be dismissed when they proved they were legal participants of the program.  Northam has already signed the bill.

“It’s a big deal. We can say Virginia legalized medical cannabis,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform Marijuana Laws. “No one should face criminal penalties for participating in a state sanctioned health care program.”