Virginia Lawmakers Suggest New Cannabis Agency, Likely Slowing Legalization Rollout

While a legalization bill moved forward in Virginia, the timeline for implementation could be extended. 

The Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Subcommittee on Marijuana met on Tuesday and Wednesday this week to discuss the details of a legalization plan put forth by Governor Ralph Northam’s administration. On Tuesday, as Cannabis Wire reported, the panel heard hours of public testimony from residents and stakeholders both for and against legalization. 

The Senate panel eventually voted on Wednesday 4-3 to move the amended legalization bill out of committee, with a major change: the creation of an independent cannabis regulatory agency, rather than going with existing alcohol regulators. This could push the schedule for legal sales back a year to allow for the new regulatory entity to be launched. 

Now, the legislation is scheduled to be taken up by the full Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee on Friday; the panel also agreed to send the legislation to the Finance and Judiciary committees. The bill, if passed, would legalize cannabis sales and possession for adults 21 and over, and allow Virginians to grow four cannabis plants (two mature) at home — a point of debate, and eventual agreement, between the Senate panel. 

Other agreements: on local control, the panel of lawmakers agreed on an opt-out option for  localities that don’t want retail cannabis sales, rather than the proposed legislation’s required opt-in. A dozen or so speakers on Tuesday voiced a preference for an opt-out framework.

There was also discussion about how the existing medical cannabis industry would work alongside, or within, an adult use cannabis market, and the panel agreed that language should reflect “co-located” facilities. 

On Tuesday, much of the public testimony focused on topics like local control, equity, and other specific policy areas, like proposed fees. Lawmakers, on the other hand, centered their discussion on Tuesday around whether the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (ABC) should regulate the state’s cannabis industry. At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, after much debate and lines of questioning and answer from lawmakers and officials from ABC and the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), lawmakers still seemed divided. 

That wasn’t the case on Wednesday. 

“The subcommittee has come to the conclusion that moving forward with an independent agency to deal with it is the right solution,” said Senator Jeremy McPike, who serves as chair of the Subcommittee on Marijuana.

“I think that both the public comment yesterday, as well as the subcommittee’s discussion, has identified that this line of business is much different than the current work of ABC,” McPike said, referencing cannabis. He added that the social equity provisions that the Northam administration has “laid out lent itself to ensure that we have a regulatory team and structure that is focused on those components” and that cannabis’ “business model is a significant enough departure to warrant an independent agency.” 

Other states, like Oregon and Washington, do combine alcohol and cannabis regulation under a  single entity, and, during the process of developing the legalization proposal, officials from ABC contacted regulators on the west coast, according to Travis Hill, chief executive officer of ABC. 

“One of the—candidly—criticisms I’ve had of ABC is that they are more set up as a law enforcement-type entity on the regulatory side, instead of a regulatory-type entity,” Senator Ryan McDougle said on Tuesday. 

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Brad Copenhaver said that the ABC is the only state agency in the Commonwealth that has the experience of regulating a product that is “as controlled, and also a product that was formerly totally prohibited,” and that the program could get up and running faster if ABC takes on cannabis. 

“We know that we can gain a lot of efficiencies and a lot of knowledge working with ABC. And, setting up this new program, we know that we could do it more quickly with ABC, that they have the resources to kind of hit the ground running, and the expertise,” Copenhaver said. 

On Wednesday, several other topics came up, including how legal cannabis could affect the state’s tourism hot spots. 

“I also worry about just the tourism aspect from my district, which is Virginia Beach,” Senator Jennifer Kiggans said, suggesting that a member from the state’s tourism board have a say in how legalization unfolds in the Commonwealth. “I don’t want it to be a pot tourism destination, and I do worry about that right now. It’s a great place for families. It’s one of our shining stars in Virginia.” 

While lawmakers discussed home grow specifics, one member of the Senate panel asked for a cannabis cultivation lesson. 

Copenhaver responded that he “will probably need to call in some other friends from the administration.” 

“Almost every other state that has legalized adult use marijuana has also legalized personal cultivation at some level,” Copenhaver said, adding that the Marijuana Work Group discussed the number of allowed plants and how many could be mature. “One of the things that we heard is that there could be an increase in certain public safety issues with home cultivation, especially with a larger number of plants.” 

NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini, who also serves as the executive director of Virginia NORML, and served as a member of the state’s Marijuana Work Group, responded that the proposed home grow limits are “certainly on the low end when you compare it to what other states are doing.” 

Pedini added, “It’s important to keep in mind that these personal cultivators are not professional cultivators and most of them aren’t going to be very good at it.” 

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