Virginia, once a conservative stronghold, positioned itself to make history this month by becoming the first traditionally “Southern” state to legalize cannabis, possibly as soon as this summer. On Feb. 5, both chambers of the state’s General Assembly passed their own legalization bills that would also establish a state-run market and licensing system.
But Virginia is running into some of the same challenges as other states pursuing legalization: disagreements over license types, penalties for minors and the timing of the law’s implementation. Industry advocates are also concerned that more conservative elements of the state legislature will prevent equitable legalization in Virginia.
What’s happened so far?
Part of the state’s decriminalization bill signed by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in May 2020 directed the legislature to create a work group to study the possibility of legalization. Last month, Northam unveiled a legalization bill co-sponsored by multiple state legislators.
Two separate state legislative bills to legalize cannabis—HB2312 in the House and SB1406 in the Senate—have already passed. But the differences between the two bills must be resolved into a single resolution for Northam to sign. And that’s where things get tricky.
Where are things now?
“We’re at crossover. … The next thing that comes is conference,” said Chelsea Wise, founder of advocacy group Marijuana Justice, in a phone interview with Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary.
She explained that the conference stage will involve private meetings between delegates from both the House and the Senate to resolve issues between the two bills, as well as changes to Northam’s initial legislation.
“We have two different versions of the bills and they are very different,” Wise said. She highlighted the ideological contrasts between the state’s relatively progressive House and its more conservative Senate. “[The State Senate] thinks we are moving too fast too soon.”
Wise and others have highlighted several key issues that need to be addressed for the state to achieve equitable legalization.
Social equity funding
Under the bill’s current structure, 30% of tax revenue from legal cannabis sales in Virginia would go to the state’s Cannabis Reinvestment Fund, a program to provide scholarships, training and workforce development opportunities in areas hit hardest by prohibition. Wise and other advocates like the ACLU of Virginia believe that figure is not high enough.
“We have taken livelihood from people, and that means we owe people money. … Only allocating 30% of the tax revenue to our reinvestment fund is an offensive offer,” she said. “We are pushing for 70% of those tax revenues to go back into the communities for grants, loans, for programs. … If we can’t even allocate at least a majority of the tax revenue to the people we have harmed now for generations, we are not actually serious about reconciling anything with Black people here in Virginia.”
Early versions of the bill required that people who are under 21 and caught with cannabis must pay a fine and attend mandatory substance abuse classes. Some believe that the penalty for underage possession should be in line with the state’s penalties for underage possession of alcohol,