Virginia is for stoners? Democrats press legalization in new territory

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The growing movement to legalize marijuana is eyeing its first real foothold in the Old South.

Once a deeply conservative state where Republicans dominated elected office just a decade ago, Virginia has seen a more liberal crop of politicians come to power, with Democrats now holding every statewide office and controlling both chambers of the Legislature.

Its pivot on marijuana is even more abrupt.

In the past year, the state has ended criminal penalties for minor marijuana offenses and established a medical marijuana program. Now, Virginia lawmakers are scrambling to pass full legalization before their 30-day legislative session wraps up in less than two weeks.

If signed into law, the move would represent weed’s deepest incursion into the southeast, where only a handful of states have even embraced medical marijuana and still have some of the nation’s harshest punishments over the drug.

Legalization still faces pushback from many Republicans, cops and substance abuse treatment professionals, who argue the state is moving way too fast on an issue with huge public health ramifications.

“We should wait on legalization to see how decriminalization will pan out in Virginia,” said Mary Crozier, a member of the Community Coalitions of Virginia who opposes the legislative push.

Virginia is among several states — including New Mexico, New York, Connecticut and Maryland — that are considering adult-use legalization this year. Only two out of 15 states that have legalized adult-use marijuana in some form have done so through their legislature, while others passed initiatives at the ballot box. With voters in conservative states such as Montana and South Dakota passing adult-use in November, Democratic-controlled states are increasingly feeling pressure to act.

The embrace is two-fold: Racial justice protests last year highlighted longstanding arguments about the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws on Black and brown communities, and coronavirus-smacked budgets have pushed lawmakers to find cash.

“Members understand the goal is to provide some equity and redress for communities that have been harmed by over-policing and over-prosecution,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, who is sponsoring the bill.

Marijuana legalization is also a top priority for Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam during his final year in office, arguing that it would improve racial equity and public health.

“Just half of the annual revenue could pay for two years of quality pre-K to all of Virginia’s most vulnerable three- and four-year-olds,” Northam said of marijuana during his State of the Commonwealth address.

But stitching together agreements on the thorny issues raised by marijuana legalization has proven incredibly difficult in legislatures across the country, even when Democrats have total control of the government.

In Virginia, legalization has hit roadblocks in both chambers due to the sheer length of the bills — issues that would need to be ironed out before the Legislature is slated to adjourn on Feb. 11.

“This thing is a 1,000-pound monster with tentacles that reach everywhere,” Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell said of the state’s marijuana legalization bill during a Senate Judiciary subcommittee meeting on Friday after hours of discussion.

What would legalization look like?

Northam’s proposal would legalize marijuana for adults over 21, set up a regulated market, automatically expunge some marijuana-related offenses and create a social equity program.

People who would qualify for benefits under the social equity program include those with cannabis convictions, immediate family members of those with cannabis convictions and those who live in a jurisdiction that has been disproportionately impacted by marijuana enforcement or is economically distressed. Several proposals to amend that definition are being discussed in the House.

The bill also allows for license caps, which has led to legal challenges and corruption issues in other states.

Senate Majority Leader Adam Ebbin, the bill’s lead sponsor in that chamber, emphasized that the licensing process will be transparent. Herring pointed to the strong equity ownership provisions as a means to ward off corruption and political favoritism. But Illinois and Massachusetts have both attempted to center their adult-use cannabis programs around social equity and have struggled with legal challenges and allegations of corruption.

Sticking points

Lawmakers in both chambers disagree with the bill’s proposal to have the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority regulate the marijuana industry, amending the proposal to create a new marijuana regulatory agency.

And in the House, lawmakers have been vigorously debating how to improve social equity provisions in order to avoid the pitfalls of other states like Illinois.

Some questioned whether it makes sense to allow cannabis companies to operate all parts of the supply chain, from cultivation to retail, a system known as vertical integration. They expressed concerns that allowing such large entities would make it more difficult for small businesses to compete. One lawmaker even suggested breaking up the vertically integrated medical cannabis companies.

Ngiste Abebe, director of public policy for medical cannabis operator Columbia Care, explained to the committee that medical cannabis businesses are only vertically integrated because state law requires it, and that the retailers have only had their doors open for a few months.

Still, some lawmakers on the subcommittee want to amend the bill to prohibit vertical integration, while possibly grandfathering in existing medical producers and creating exemptions for small businesses.

Running out of time

Lawmakers are struggling with the size and complexity of the bill during such a short session. In a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing Thursday, senators punted on delving into specific issues due to the lack of time. “This is my 30th session … I’ve not seen a bill this long,” said subcommittee Chair Creigh Deeds.

Herring, for her part, is not too concerned about the 30-day session hampering the bill. “If we’re not done, the governor can call a special session,” she said.

She and other marijuana legalization advocates cited the extensive work that has already been done on the subject, including a study out of the governor’s office and a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which developed policy recommendations for marijuana legalization.

Both Herring and Ebbin have been pushing back on arguments that the bill moves too fast to legalize marijuana, with legal sales not set to start for at least two years after enactment, allowing the legislature to make adjustments if necessary.

Despite the messy legislative process, Herring continues to profess optimism that they’ll succeed in the legalization push: “I’m still feeling good,” she said.

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