RICHMOND, Va. -- Advocates of legalizing marijuana applauded Virginia lawmakers who voted to allow adult recreational sales in 2024.
Adam Goers is vice president of corporate affairs for Columbia Care, a cannabis company based in Portsmouth.
Employees grow the plant, process them into pharmaceutical quality medicines, and dispense them to qualified patients who have visited their physician and received a recommendation to seek treatment.
“Sixty-seven percent of adult use customers are actually seeking cannabis to treat a medical and health wellness condition,” Goers explained.
Columbia Care’s customers often seek their products for relief of chronic pain, anxiety, sleep disorders, or more serious conditions like cancer, HIV and AIDS.
Goers admitted he’s a user of cannabis for medicinal use.
“I, in fact, do suffer from chronic pain that’s not well treated with anything and have avoided opioids for the 12 years,” he stated. “I’ve been suffering through this because what’s worse than being in chronic pain is having chronic pain and an opioid addiction.”
Last month, Virginia lawmakers gave final approval to a bill that will legalize marijuana for adult recreational use, but not until 2024 when retail sales of the drug would also begin.
The Commonwealth will join 15 states and become the first southern state to legalize marijuana. Nearly 70% of Virginians have voiced their support for legalizing marijuana, Goers said.
Under the legislation that passed, possession of up to an ounce (28.3 grams) of marijuana will become legal beginning Jan. 1, 2024, at the same time sales will begin and regulations will go into effect to control the marijuana marketplace in Virginia.
Goers believed Virginia will reap the financial benefits of legalization even before recreational sales begin.
Columbia Care planned to partner with Richmond-based Greenleaf and bring additional services to the Central Virginia market if approved by a regulatory board.
“[Legalizing marijuana] brings in more tax revenue, it creates more opportunity for entrepreneurs, and lots of new high paying jobs. I point out that Columbia Care pays a minimum $16 an hour with full benefits,” Goers said.
The bill was a top priority for Democrats, who framed legalization as a necessary step to end the disparate treatment of people of color under current marijuana laws.
Legalizing marijuana would provide another option for users outside the illicit market that may include products that are adulterated or tainted.
Dana Schrad, executive director for the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, argued that legalizing marijuana would not end the black market.
“You are still going to have drug trafficking of marijuana with criminal elements,” she explained.
Schrad said her association was not consulted in the development of the legislation. She said law enforcement cannot measure marijuana impairment like officers can test for individuals who are too intoxicated to drive.
“In every state that has legalized it they’ve seen an increase in crashes,” Schrad stated. "There are a lot of issues around public safety that haven’t adequately addressed in this legislation.”
Use of any drug also increases mental health cases in Virginia, according to Schrad.
Gov. Ralph Northam has voiced his support for the legislation but admitted it’s not a "perfect bill."
"Which is why we have reconvened so I will have the opportunity to sit down with my staff, to talk to the legislators to talk to the advocates to make any necessary amendments moving forward,” Northam said.
The General Assembly will meet for a one-day reconvened session on April 7 to act on bills that are vetoed or amended by the Governor.
“We have done two thorough studies in Virginia looking at legalizing marijuana. So, we’ve done the work and I think we can do this the right thing,” Northam stated.
Last year, lawmakers decriminalized marijuana making simple possession a civil penalty that can be punished by a fine of no more than $25.
The new legislation will include a reenactment clause that will require a second vote from the General Assembly, but only on the regulatory framework and criminal penalties for several offenses, including underage use and public consumption of marijuana. A second vote will not be required on legalization.