Feb 2, 2024 - News

The latest setback to a legal weed market in Virginia

Illustration of a gavel, but the handle is a marijuana joint.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Virginia's push toward legal weed sales could include mandatory minimum sentences for those who sell without a license more than once.

What's happening: The addition, which cleared a Senate committee this week as part of the bill to establish a regulated market as early as next year, would penalize repeat unlicensed marijuana sales similarly to alcohol — as a Class 1 misdemeanor with at least 30 days in jail.

Why it matters: Some cannabis advocates, who pulled support for the bill over the change, say the legislature is failing to recognize how it could disparately impact Black Virginians.

By the numbers: A 2020 study from JLARC, the legislature's watchdog, found that the average conviction rate for marijuana offenses was 3.9 times higher for Black Virginians than white residents from 2010 to 2019.

  • Black people were also arrested at 3.5 times the rate for white people, per the study.

What they're saying: Treating unlicensed marijuana sales like alcohol disregards how differently marijuana is policed in Black and brown communities, Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, told lawmakers.

  • "This bill does not contain equity," Higgs Wise added. "This type of enforcement will continue to target people from staying out of this industry."

Catch up fast: Politicians have touted legalization of marijuana as a vehicle for reversing the disparate impact of marijuana enforcement on Black Virginians.

  • But there are already concerns from some cannabis advocates that Virginia's entry into a regulated market will leave out Black businesses.
  • The JLARC study noted that "relatively few" Black people have benefited from the commercialized marijuana markets in other states.

Worth noting: The change isn't slowing the bill down in the legislature, but more amendments are likely ahead, Greg Habeeb, a former Republican delegate and lobbyist for the Virginia Cannabis Association, tells Axios.


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