RICHMOND, Va. -- A bill that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Virginia and set the framework the potential billion-dollar industry got its first hearing before state lawmakers Tuesday morning.
Governor Ralph Northam (D) has publicly backed the effort, which as currently written would allow sales to those 21 and older starting in January 2023.
Although many lawmakers and activists expect the legislation to pass this year, what the regulatory framework looks like will be hotly debated in the weeks to come.
Though SB 1406 is far from a finished product, the measure sponsored by state Senators Louise Lucas, Adam Ebbin, and Joe Morrissey, all Democrats, includes several broad reaching provisions currently:
- Consumption for personal use would be allowed for those 21 and older
- A set number of licenses would be issued for cultivating and retail sales
- The state would tax sales at a rate of 21-percent, plus local taxes, and the existing sales tax, which could reach 30-percent total
- The majority of the revenue from sales would go to early childhood education, a newly formed “Cannabis Equity Reinvestment fund” to invest in communities of historically targeted by drug enforcement, and substance abuse prevention programs
- Cities and counties would have a say into whether or not to allow recreational use
- Criminal records for those with convictions of certain marijuana related offenses would be expunged
You can read the full bill as it is currently constructed here.
“We know the prohibition on cannabis in both our Commonwealth and our country has failed,” said Sen. Ebbin, who added that communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana enforcement laws.
A Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) study of legalizing cannabis found that Black Virginians comprise a disproportionately high percentage of individuals arrested and convicted of marijuana offenses.
“From 2010–2019, the average arrest rate of Black individuals for marijuana possession was 3.5 times higher than the arrest rate for white individuals (and significantly higher than arrest rates for other racial or ethnic groups). Black individuals were also convicted at a much higher rate—3.9 times higher than white individuals. In other states that have created commercial marijuana markets, relatively few Black individuals have benefited from the establishment of commercial marijuana markets. Industry statistics show the vast majority of current marijuana business owners are white, and there are few Black-owned marijuana businesses," the study said.
Much of the conversations during Tuesday’s hearings centered around whether Virginia ABC should handle regulation of recreational marijuana, as the bill currently dictates, or whether a separate body should be formed to do that work.
“I don’t see how this fits in ABC. I think it has to be a separate entity,” said Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover), who said he opposes legalize in general but wants Virginia to take a measured approach no matter what.
State officials said that standing up a new agency to regulated marijuana, like other states have already done, would add several months and possibly years to full implementation. McDougle said it would be better to take more time and ensure Virginia thinks through the long term ramifications of who controls marijuana regulation.
A group of advocates, medical professionals, and law enforcement spoke out against legalization Tuesday. The coalition argued that the health issues associated with long term marijuana use for those who become dependent and youth too often gets glossed over in this conversation.
“We have to ask ourselves, is this commercialization something that’s going to be good for public health in Virginia? Is this something that’s going to be good for the youth in Virginia?” asked Will Jones with Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
“I think we need to consider that we’re removing resources from those who are addicted, and we’re making it more difficult for law enforcement to conduct thorough and just law enforcement of impaired driving on the roadway,” said Col. Jeffery Katz, Chesterfield County Chief of Police, referencing drug treatment programs provided through his department.
The JLARC report said lawmakers must take public health and youth usage risks into account because “research shows likely associations between habitual marijuana use and several negative health outcomes ranging from physical health problems, such as mild respiratory issues, to cognitive and mental health issues.”
Community organizer Kalia Harris, the co-Executive Director of Virginia Student Power Network, said Virginia must also deeply consider how young people will be punished if legalization is approved to ensure they are not criminalized in the process.
“Legalizing is going to happen. The question is how and who is it going to benefit,” Harris said.
People of color are ready to participate in the new industry, and Harris said the state must work on this bill to ensure through state code that Black Virginians have access to the marketplace once it is established.
“It’s important for us to get out ahead of it now and doing it with social equity,” she said. “With marijuana, we’re talking about seed to sale, so who has ownership over those different pieces and does that include folks who are part of the legacy market.”
The Senate sub-committee will once again take up the issue Wednesday morning. The bill must work its way through several different committees and the floor of both chambers of the General Assembly before heading to Northam’s desk.