Virginia looks unlikely to hit 2024 target for retail marijuana sales
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
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
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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