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Copy of With marijuana now legal in Virginia, lawmakers debate how to set up the industry

Virginia lawmakers plan to take up a host of cannabis-related legislation this year in a narrowly divided General Assembly, following the body’s historic vote to legalize the drug for recreational use last year — when both the House of Delegates and the Senate were under Democratic control. Last summer, then-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed into law a measure making it legal for people 21 or older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and cultivate up to four marijuana plants in their household. But the complex legislation left it illegal to buy or sell cannabis, as retail sales were not slated to begin until 2024, giving the state time to build a regulated commercial market. Proposed legislation would allow some businesses to begin legally selling marijuana as soon as July 1.

The law includes a provision that requires the General Assembly to reenact certain aspects of the legislation during this year’s session, opening the door to significant changes to the law. Lawmakers in both the House, which Republicans now control after winning the majority in last fall’s elections, and the Senate, which is still under the control of Democrats, will consider cannabis-related bills that address such issues as a timeline and who will get licensing preference.

Though Republicans overwhelmingly opposed legalization last year, they have indicated that they plan to follow through with reenactment. However, the parameters of what the industry will look like and when it will open for business remain uncertain. Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has also indicated that he doesn’t intend to overturn legalization, but he has acknowledged that the law still needs work to set up the commercial market.

“Fortunately for Virginians, there is clear bipartisan support for taking action this session to regulate adult-use sales,” said JM Pedini, executive director of the Virginia National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Continuing to cede control of cannabis in the commonwealth to untaxed, unregulated, illicit operators poses substantial risk to both consumer and public safety. It is not in the best interest of Virginians to delay retail sales one minute more.”

Virginia is one of 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, an effort that reflects growing cultural acceptance of the plant and a desire to minimize disparate enforcement against people of color. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

Virginia legislators originally voted to legalize adult recreational use with plans for the law to come into effect in 2024, but after a push from activists with concerns over three more years of enforcement, lawmakers voted in April to move up legalization to July 1. The 2024 retail timeline remained, giving lawmakers time to establish a business framework. Republicans opposed the sped-up timeline, arguing that an earlier legalization date would foster an illicit marijuana trade while the state sets up its infrastructure for legal sales.

The bills introduced this year, from both Democrats and Republicans, have some dueling ideas about points outlined in last year’s legislation, especially on social equity provisions that grant preference when awarding marijuana-related business licenses to groups that have suffered the most from the criminalization of the drugs.

“It was extraordinarily difficult to reach a consensus in the last General Assembly amongst the singular majority party,” Pedini said. “Now, we’re faced with a divided government, and finding peace in the valley will only be all the more difficult.”

Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) introduced the omnibus bill in the Senate, based on recommendations from the General Assembly’s Cannabis Oversight Commission and Northam. Ebbin’s bill mainly follows last year’s almost 300-page legislation with some changes to licensure, criminal penalties, local regulation, and diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll get something done,” Ebbin said in an interview. “The dynamics, of course, are different this year, but I think there is a desire among the Republican leadership to provide for a well-regulated framework. So that’s a start.”

Del. Michael J. Webert (R-Fauquier) introduced what will likely be the leading bill in the House to reenact last year’s legislation. Webert’s bill also mostly follows what passed last year but has a few key changes from the Democratic version, such as bringing down the proposed tax rate from 21 percent to 10 percent.

Webert’s bill also eliminates the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund, a community-led fund outlined in the 2021 law, that would direct 30 percent of all tax profits to help communities impacted by disproportionate drug law enforcement. Instead, Webert’s bill creates the Public School Assistance Fund, which would direct tax revenue to school repairs.

The bill also removes a provision that would give licensing preference to applicants who were convicted or related to someone who was convicted of a marijuana-related crime. The bill maintains other portions of the social equity provision, such as giving preference to applicants who live in communities disproportionately impacted by drug law enforcement, or who graduated from a historically Black college or university in the commonwealth.

Marijuana-legalization advocates are watching a number of other bills that aren’t directly reworking last year’s legislation. Both chambers have introduced transition bills that would allow stores that already have medicinal licenses to begin adult-use sales as early as July 1.

Other bills focus on the resentencing process for marijuana-related offenses and record expungement. Another bill seeks to repeal a law that prohibits law enforcement from stopping a vehicle purely over the odor of cannabis.

“I think we can work together,” Ebbin said. “But, can we agree, is the challenge.”

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