Virginia’s Cannabis Regulation Is in a “Start-up Phase”

One of the biggest questions in Virginia right now: will adults have access to legal cannabis sales earlier than expected? 

The short answer is that it is still unclear. But the question was on the agenda during Thursday’s meeting of the Virginia Oversight Commission, during which a subcommittee was formed to start to figure out whether and how sales could launch before the date set in the law, which isn’t until 2024.

The Commission, which is a group of lawmakers tasked with overseeing the implementation of the adult use bill signed into law this spring, received several updates on how the regulatory body is coming together, and on potential paths for expungement and resentencing. The commission also discussed license caps and categories, and regulation of hemp processors. 

Megan Field, a policy adviser to Gov. Ralph Northam on agriculture and public safety, which includes cannabis, gave an update on the creation of the Control Authority. The CCA is led by a five-person board of directors, which has met twice. 

“Since the Authority is in what we’re calling a startup phase, it has the responsibility of approving foundational policies and processes and creating the first ever comprehensive budget for the Authority,” Field said. 

The CCA has been allocated $3.5 million from the general fund to get cannabis regulation off the ground, and expects to hire about 20 employees in the short-term. For fiscal year 2023, Field said they’re estimating the need for just over $12 million to cover 70 employees, “with a particular focus on hiring staff for the business equity team and the policy department, which would be writing regulations.” By fiscal year 2024, the Authority anticipates needing just over $21 million to support 115 employees. These employees will work in areas that complete statutory mandates in safe driving, use prevention, and processing and issuing business licenses. 

Two “statutorily mandated” positions are expected to be posted in the coming weeks, including the cannabis Social Equity Liaison, which has internal responsibilities to ensure cannabis regulation is happening in a way that “respects diversity, equity and inclusion. This liaison is charged with ensuring that “Virginians of all backgrounds are aware of and have access to opportunities in this market,” Field said. The other position, the Public Health Advisory Council staffer, will have a public health background and will serve as a staff member to the Public Health Advisory Council. 

The search for the CEO of the Authority is, Field said, “ongoing.” 

“It’s a difficult job, and the governor thinks it’s really important to make sure we have the right person in that position,” Field said. 

There’s been an “incredible amount of collaboration with other state agencies,” Field said, as they create the comprehensive budget that will support the policymakers as they start making decisions. Some of this is fairly mundane, like locating office space and furniture, and crafting human resources policies. Other parts include conversations with the Internal Revenue Service. 

“We’ve had the joy of working with the IRS, which I’ve learned a lot from, establishing payroll, retirement or other benefits for employees,” Field said. 

Sean Talmadge, deputy secretary of public safety and homeland security, and Northam’s homeland security adviser, spoke about the number of records that have been sealed so far, including 64,651 misdemeanor cannabis charges, as well as just under 400,000 lesser offenses. 

Gracie Burger, the state policy director for the Last Prisoner Project, a national nonpartisan nonprofit focused on the intersection of criminal justice and cannabis reform, also gave a presentation. The group provides data-driven policy expertise from their work in jurisdictions across the country, at the local, state and federal level.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice Virginia, joined Burger to go over policy options and recommendations as they pertain to sentencing and criminal justice policy in the state. 

The goal, Higgs Wise said, is to have a process for cannabis-related sentences to be reconsidered, and for those people to be resentenced and released, “in light of legalization and our Commonwealth priorities for equity.” 

Of the three main reform options, there’s executive clemency, parole, and resentencing, the last of which was the focus during the discussion in Virginia on Thursday. 

“Virginia made history as the first southern state to repeal marijuana prohibition for simple possession. But despite that tremendous progress, there are still people incarcerated in the Commonwealth for cannabis-related sentences handed down during this prohibition,” Higgs Wise said. 

There are two more cannabis meetings in Virginia this month. The Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board will meet on Oct. 19, and the Cannabis Public Health Advisory Council will meet on Oct. 28. 

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