Jan 29, 2024 - News

Bill to legalize retail marijuana sales moves forward in Virginia

Illustration of a loading bar made out of a joint.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

A proposal to begin legal retail marijuana sales in Virginia as early as January 2025 is gaining momentum in the state legislature.

Driving the news: On Friday, a Senate committee advanced legislation that would create an adult-use cannabis market in the state.

  • The move came the day after a subcommittee voted to move forward with Senate Bill 448, sponsored by state Sen. Aaron Rouse, merging it with parts of a similar bill from Sen. Adam Ebbin, the Times-Dispatch reports.

Why it matters: Virginia became the first state in the South to legalize possession of marijuana three years ago.

  • But since then, lawmakers have failed to set up a legal marketplace for Virginians to buy the weed they can legally possess.

Zoom in: The bill would allow the state Cannabis Control Authority to begin issuing licenses for retail sales on July 1, with retail sales starting Jan. 1, 2025, per the RTD.

  • It also creates licenses to allow multiple cannabis businesses: retail sales, growing and processing.

Between the lines: Still, some cannabis advocates don't believe either bill goes far enough in addressing the impact anti-drug laws had on Black residents, who are more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses.

  • The bill would have regulators consider, but not give advantage to, factors like socioeconomic or veteran status among applicants for equity purposes.
  • Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, told the Times-Dispatch, "Rouse's bill continues to leave out directly impacted people and access to capital, which are the foundations of cannabis equity programs."

Worth noting: The proposed legislation would allow cities and counties to opt out of retail marijuana stores through a voter referendum.

  • And some could. Chesterfield, for example, has blocked attempts to open medical dispensaries in the county, arguing it won't allow them as long as marijuana is illegal at the federal level.

Gubernatorial threat level: Any legislation passed by the General Assembly would have to clear Gov. Youngkin, whose stance on the issue "remains the wild card," per Virginia Mercury.

  • Youngkin has repeatedly said he's "not interested" in creating a legal market for recreational marijuana sales — but he's yet to say definitively that he would veto (or sign) any bill that reaches his desk.
  • He reiterated his "not interested" stance at the start of this year's session, per WRIC, and when asked for comment on the latest bill last week, his spokesperson pointed to Youngkin's previous statements, the Times-Dispatch reported.

Flashback: Democratic lawmakers voted to legalize marijuana possession in 2021 with the goal of beginning retail sales in Jan. 2024. But they couldn't agree on the details for a retail market so they punted that part for the next year.

  • Then they lost control of the House of Delegates and the governor's office, and efforts to create a legal marketplace failed the next two years.
  • Meanwhile, Virginia's underground market for weed sales has flourished, growing by 30% since 2019, with an estimated $2.4 billion in marijuana sales happening in the state last year — all but 1% of it illegally, the Times-Dispatch reported last year.

What's next: The legislation has to clear the full Senate, the House of Delegates (where a companion bill to Ebbin's is still in play) and then pass Youngkin's desk.

  • Sen. Scott Surovell, who chairs the Senate's cannabis subcommittee, said the bill would need to reach the Senate Finance Committee by Feb. 5 to still have a chance this session.
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