How will lawmakers balance pressure to expedite legal cannabis sales with the thoughtful creation of a framework that prioritizes equity?
The Virginia Cannabis Oversight Commission, which is overseeing implementation of legislation to legalize cannabis sales for adults, met on Wednesday for the first time since the General Election, during which Republican Glenn Youngkin beat out Democrat Terry McAuliffe. While the law allows for sales to go live in 2024, the Commission is weighing its options for an earlier start. One topic that came up repeatedly during the meeting: equity.
“We’ve created an apparatus for folks to legally possess but not legally purchase. And so one of the things that we want to do is have a conversation with those who are invested in the community and in the industry,” said Delegate Don Scott Jr, who chaired the meeting.
Lawmakers legalized cannabis in April. From some of the earliest conversations about legalization in the Commonwealth, criminal justice and equity have been front and center. When lawmakers passed the adult use bill, former Gov. Ralph Northam tweeted, calling the passage a “monumental step to address racial disparities in our criminal justice system and build an equitable, inclusive future for our Commonwealth.”
On Wednesday, as the Commission members’ discussion turned from delta-8 THC to the illicit market back to expedited sales and equity, lawmakers appeared hesitant to greenlight accelerated sales without specific promises of equity.
Senator Adam Ebbin, sponsor of the legalization bill that was passed, suggested that existing medical cannabis license holders could develop an “incubation program” for microbusiness licensees, which could be “one option to help assist with the social equity component.”
“To me, the question is not whether we’re going to move forward with adult use sales, but whether we’re going to have a product that’s tested and one that we have a strict age limit and reduce the illicit market,” Ebbin said.
Multistate operators like Green Thumb Industries, Columbia Care, and Jushi have all already registered to lobby on cannabis in Virginia, as Cannabis Wire reported. And these business owners previously asked the Joint Commission on Cannabis Oversight to consider “expediting legal access and commercial sales,” and an incubator program, meaning that these major cannabis companies would start first with sales.
Alexander Macaulay, a lawyer for Jushi, a multistate operator that holds a license in Northern Virginia, suggested to lawmakers on Wednesday that the Cannabis Control Authority expedite sales by issuing temporary permits to existing medical cannabis operators.
“I applaud the subcommittee for trying to grapple with: how do we get there sooner, to a legal market, a product that is medical-grade, that is safe and consumers know what they’re getting?” Macaulay said. “Our view is essentially that you could start the adult use market, if it was the will of the General Assembly, on July 1. And the industry is ready and we think we can meet a good part of the demand.”
Ngiste Abebe, vice president of public policy at Columbia Care, another multistate operator, suggested that a piece of the expedited sales conversation is education, and one of the most effective ways to educate the public about cannabis is to “require regulated retailers” to provide that education to consumers who visit their businesses.
“The sooner consumers come into a place that is mandated, and has state-approved materials to provide to help educate adults, the sooner we can make sure that everybody is getting educated. And those are not necessarily conversations that are happening in some of the existing cannabis transactions in the state right now,” Abebe said.
Jenn Michelle Pedini, the development director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, who also serves as the executive director of Virginia NORML, spoke about a range of topics related to the state’s cannabis market, including its sizable existing illicit market.
“It is very much a standard policy practice in the United States when a state expands from medical to adult use to expedite sales to their already existing operators because it helps accomplish those policy goals of providing for consumer safety,” Pedini said. “This is certainly a step we hope the Commonwealth is willing to embrace and expedite in the 2022 session.”
Delegate Scott repeatedly returned to equity, focusing on how to make expedited sales work while guaranteeing an equitable approach.
“I’m very concerned that the intent, at least of the legislation, was to make sure that we provided for some social equity. And I’m very concerned that we may begin that and leave it up to those who get to begin early, to kind of implement their own plan,” Scott said, adding that he wants “legislative ideas” to ensure that “we hold folks accountable to maintain the spirit of what we thought about impacting those who have been incarcerated or have a criminal history.”
Pedini reminded lawmakers and those tuning in that while a good part of the conversation around legal cannabis centers on making money and who makes money, legalization in Virginia happened to “end the failed policy of prohibition,” which is a “policy that impacts consumers.”
There are a number of multistate operators in Virginia, or cannabis businesses that have footprints in more than one state, but those folks are no longer “Big Cannabis,” according to Pedini.
“We are in Altria’s backyard. We’re just renting space here, and that’s likely going to be who foots the bill, along with some other major brands, to end federal prohibition. I think that when we think about what big cannabis means, that’s big,” Pedini said. “We have some multistate operators here in Virginia. They are not big in comparison to Altria or Constellation. I think it helps to keep that perspective,” Pedini said. For context, Altria, maker of Marlboro cigarettes, is registered to lobby on cannabis sales in Virginia, as Cannabis Wire was the first news organization to report.
“Altria supports the federal legalization of cannabis under an appropriate regulatory framework. As a stakeholder in this industry we intend to work with policy makers and regulators in support of a transparent, responsible, and equitable operating environment for the sale of cannabis,” Altria spokesperson George Parman told Cannabis Wire at the time.
“This is essential for both Altria as an industry stakeholder headquartered in the Commonwealth and for our diverse employee base who, as community stakeholders, are dedicated to making Virginia a great place to live and work.”
The meeting ended with a vote to direct the legal staff to draft several options for the first legal cannabis sales to be presented to the full committee. The three potential start dates are July 1, 2022, January 1, 2023, and July 1, 2023. The next full Commission meeting has not yet been scheduled.