As Virginia begins its first earnest conversations about legalizing recreational marijuana, the state’s nascent medical marijuana industry is just getting off the ground. The first producer opened in Bristol last month. The remaining three licensees in Richmond, Portsmouth and Manassas aim to begin serving patients by the end of the year.
And when the General Assembly convenes in January, the companies are hoping that as lawmakers consider allowing recreational use, they also act to ease up on the medical side.
Their big ask: Permission to sell the plant in its most basic, smokable form — unprocessed flower.
“Virginia’s medical program is one of the most restrictive in the country,” said Adam Goers, the chairman of the Virginia Medical Cannabis Coalition, which represents the companies. “Virginians deserve true access to this important alternative medicinal therapy, and removing barriers to access should be a critical part of the conversation as the commonwealth looks toward legalization.”
Under current law, the state’s medical program is limited largely to processed products like oils and vape cartridges, which the producers say are more expensive and thus reduce access to patients.
The companies made a quiet push during legislature’s 2020 session for permission to sell the plant’s bud, but it didn’t go very far. With recreational marijuana now on the table, they hope the conversation will be different.
Ngiste Abebe, director of public policy at Columbia Care, which is opening in Portsmouth, said the coalition will also be asking lawmakers to:
• Reduce fees for patient registration cards and make them valid for longer than 12 months;
• Simplify medical provider participation to reduce patient costs for registration;
• Make operational reforms — currently pharmacists have to watch a wood chipper that destroys plant waste while being watched on multiple cameras due to overly stringent regulations; and
• Study a path to health insurance coverage for medical cannabis.
If lawmakers do move forward with full legalization, it remains to be seen exactly how medical providers will fit in. A study released this week by the legislature’s Joint Legislative Audit Review Committee recommended against using the providers as a stop gap to provide immediate access to recreational users, estimating they’d only be able to meet a fraction of the demand for the drug, possibly crowding out users with medical needs.
But state analysts did suggest they should be allowed to participate in the recreational marketplace if one were to open.
“Provisional licenses for cultivation and processing could be automatically awarded to medical operations at the same time regular license awards are made to other applicants,” they wrote. “This approach would allow medical operations to contribute to the marijuana supply in the first few years of legalization.”