Sep 30, 2022 - Politics

Virginia looks unlikely to hit 2024 target for retail marijuana sales

Illustration of a clock with cannabis leaves for hands.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

When Virginia lawmakers voted almost two years ago to legalize marijuana, their 2024 target date to begin retail sales struck many as a long time to wait.

What's happening: It's starting to look like it might not even happen in 2024.

State of play: Any legislation authorizing retail sales in 2024 would have to pass when the General Assembly convenes for the next session in January.

  • That means it would still have to get past the same GOP majority that refused to give the issue a hearing last session.

What they're saying: "Nothing has changed that I'm aware of," Garren Shipley, spokesperson for House Speaker Todd Gilbert, tells Axios.

Catch up fast: Virginia lawmakers voted to legalize possession but not sales of recreational marijuana in July 2021.

  • The decision to wait until 2024 to begin retail sales was initially intended to give lawmakers and regulators a three-year runway to set up the market, but before Democrats finalized the plan, they lost control of the House and governor's office, thrusting the state into weed purgatory.

Yes, but: Some lobbyists working on legalization remain hopeful Senate Democrats and House Republicans can reach an agreement on the issue.

  • Greg Habeeb, a former GOP delegate who represents the Virginia Cannabis Association, says that last year Republicans barely had a month to work on the issue between winning the majority back and the beginning of the legislative session.
  • "When we get to session next year, Republicans will have had a full year of being in charge and studying Republican solutions," Habeeb says.

Between the lines: There are signs some key Republicans are taking an interest in the issue, with lawmakers representing agricultural areas taking the lead, including House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore.

  • But even if the GOP does play ball this year, the big question will be whether the two sides can "craft a version of the bill that can pick up Republican support without losing Democratic support," Habeeb says.
Virginia's thriving illicit market
weed
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

It may still be illegal to buy marijuana, but it's never been easier.

What's happening: The illicit market has moved from the shadows to social media, where cannabis entrepreneurs willing to take a risk openly advertise delivery services and pop-up events.

  • Some dealers are even blanketing neighborhoods and events with business cards.

What they're saying: "Someone came up to our booth at Pride and dropped off business cards — it has their business name and a method of contact to buy weed," JM Pedini, the executive director of the legalization advocacy group Virginia NORML, tells Axios.

Meanwhile, plenty of brick-and-mortar shops continue to sell synthetic THC products despite warnings by state regulators and Attorney General Jason Miyares.

  • State food safety regulators said they have performed 2,500 inspections since July 1 to "to educate food manufacturers and retail food establishments and encourage voluntary compliance," according to a spokesman.

Why it matters: The proliferation of unregulated sales exposes people to untested and potentially unsafe products, Pedini said.

What we're watching: Lobbyists and legislators working on the issue tell us the booming illicit and gray market is the No. 1 case for getting Republicans on board with legalizing retail sales.

By the numbers: medical marijuana
Illustration of weekly pill case with marijuana leaves labels.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

With recreational retail sales still in limbo, the state's 2-year-old medical cannabis program remains the only legal route for Virginians to buy marijuana.

There are currently around 20,300 active patients getting cannabis products in the state — a sixfold increase since Jan. 2021, Ngiste Abebe, vice president of public policy at Columbia Care, tells Axios.

  • Columbia Care controls two of the state's four licenses to process marijuana for medicinal use — gLeaf in the Richmond area and Cannabist in Hampton Roads.

Zoom in: Pain, anxiety and insomnia are the most common reasons patients seek a prescription, Abebe tells Axios.

Anecdotally, the average patient in Virginia seems to be a 55-year-old woman, Abebe says.

The latest: Columbia Care has two new dispensaries opening in the coming weeks — one in Williamsburg and one in the former Need Supply store in Carytown.

  • Dispensaries in Colonial Heights and near Chesterfield Town Center area also in the works locally, but there's no timeline yet for those to open.
  • gLeaf is also looking at opening dispensaries in Ashland or the East End, Richmond BizSense reported.
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