Marijuana Sales Bill For 2023 Filed By Virginia GOP Lawmaker, Draws Mixed Reactions From Advocates!

A Republican lawmaker in Virginia has introduced legislation to legalize and regulate the marijuana industry in the state; however, the bill has been met with mixed reactions from advocates, some of whom see it as a giveaway to large, multi-state operators at the expense of equity for people harmed by the war on drugs.

The bill, presented by Republican Del. Keith Hodges, expands upon existing law in Virginia that permits the possession and personal cultivation of cannabis for adults and creates a commercial market for it. Supporters have been urging lawmakers to pass a bill for sales to begin. In 2021, when Democrats held sway over all branches of state government, lawmakers passed a legalization bill that included wording for establishing regulations.

These parts may have been reinstated by a subsequent legislature, but they weren’t in the 2022 session when Republicans retook the House of Delegates and the governorship. To provide legislators with a new market framework, the latest proposal, HB 1464, proposes revising previously established regulatory rules.

Some have defended the proposal, saying that the updated language provides a necessary and practical way forward to enable access to regulated products under a legislature and government that is partially controlled by the Republican Party. Still, others deem the reforms, especially those pertaining to social fairness, to be untenable.

Specifically, the bill seeks to strike language that would require regulators to establish criteria for giving social equity applicants preference. Instead of giving preference to applicants from economically depressed areas, regulators should think of ways to help any candidate who plans to work in such a region.

In addition, the provision requiring potential multi-license holders to submit “diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies” will be removed. This provision is one example of a language that would be removed. Furthermore, a whole section detailing the conditions for social equity license applicants, such as the prohibition of cannabis business ownership by those with criminal records, would be removed.

According to Marijuana Moment, Shaleen Title, founder of the Parabola Center, said, “It’s a major shift to replace policies empowering people in communities harmed by the drug war with new financial benefits for corporations who locate their businesses in disadvantaged areas—essentially bringing in outside companies to target poor people for profit.”

These exploitative practices are not novel nor fair, the author argues. Like the previous group, Marijuana Justice Virginia claims that the proposed legislation “erases any commitment to addressing the impact of marijuana prohibition that continues to specifically target Black Virginians.” This proposal “basically lays out the red carpet enabling for an outrageous MSO benefit plan sponsored by the Commonwealth of Virginia,” the group warned.

Hodge was unavailable for comment on the issues raised by activists, according to a staff member in the sponsor’s office, who spoke to Marijuana Moment. Others who back the bill claim that taking out the phrase on social equity applicants shows a desire to streamline the law and makes it more likely to pass the legislature’s conservative committees.

Existing pharmaceutical processors, industrial hemp processors, and medical cannabis shops would be given additional priority for licensure under Hodges’s proposed legislation. Among the ways, it accomplishes this goal is by making it illegal for municipalities to restrict marijuana firms from obtaining licenses, even if voters in those municipalities have approved a referendum to prohibit the establishment of new marijuana enterprises.

The proposal would allow small cannabis firms to form cooperatives with other small company licensees to “lease space to cultivate, manufacture, and sell retail marijuana and retail marijuana products on the premises of another licensee.” There would be an excise tax of 10% on marijuana sales, but the bill would remove any reference to the use of those monies.

Specifically, it would remove the requirement that 30% of tax revenue be allocated to a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund. The delegate’s proposal would also include language clarifying that financial institutions that provide services to legal marijuana firms in the state would not be subject to legal repercussions.

The measure establishes a deadline of September 1, 2023, by which time the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority must have promulgated rules to execute the statute. However, no further licenses might be issued until July 1, 2024. Several Cannabis, psychedelic, and drug policy proposals have already been introduced in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress this year, and Marijuana Moment is keeping tabs on them all.

Patrons who pledge at least $25 per month will be able to access our dynamic maps, charts, and hearing calendar. Advocates are hoping for amendments to the bill after the new session begins next month in response to early criticism of key aspects. It may also serve as an effective conversation starter in the new session, which will continue to see GOP control of the House and the governor’s office, by putting less emphasis on social equality and prescriptive revenue allocation.

The Democrats in the Senate still hold a slim majority. On Friday, JM Pedini, NORML’s director of development, told Marijuana Moment that “this is a clever measure meticulously designed by Delegate Hodges” with the best chance of victory in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. Democratic lawmakers and then-governor Ralph Northam ultimately pushed legalization through (D).

Glenn Youngkin (R), his successor as governor, has said he won’t get in the way of implementation but has made it plain he has strong feelings about the type of regulatory framework he finds acceptable, which excludes “certain nonstarters” in what the Democrats have proposed.

Advocacy groups look willing to make some concessions, but time is running out for getting the market up and operating, so it remains to be seen how much sway the administration will try to have in legislative debates on regulating marijuana sales. What’s missing from the cannabis discourse in Virginia, according to Pedini, who also heads up Virginia NORML as its executive director, is clear leadership from Governor Youngkin.

We’re hopeful the governor is taking heed of the fact that legalization enjoys widespread support among people of all political stripes. The Joint Commission on Cannabis Oversight of the legislature last year voted in support of a plan to begin adult-use cannabis sales in January 2023, but lawmakers did not adopt legislation to make this happen.

In the meanwhile, the governor has proposed a budget that allocates $2.1 million to a hemp registration and inspection program. Legislators are also considering how to handle cannabinoids derived from cannabis, such as delta-8 THC.

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