A proposal to legalize marijuana and create a regulated market for the drug cleared a Senate hurdle on Friday, coming out of a key panel with a delayed implementation date and a new diversity requirement for the boards that would guide the process.
The Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services panel voted 8-7 in favor of a bill crafted by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. All seven Republicans on the committee opposed the measure.
The panel’s Democrats pitched a key decision to delay legal sales until January 2024 — a year later than the governor’s January 2023 proposal — as necessary to grapple with the behemoth legislation. The sales delay would not impact automatic expungements, which would begin this summer.
Lawmakers from both parties signaled interest in tackling some aspects of marijuana reform — now encapsulated in a 500-page bill — during coming legislative sessions, suggesting the current session might not allow for a close look at all ramifications.
“[The delay is] a good acknowledgment of the work that has to be done. I hope that we realize that we don’t have to eat the whole cow here, and we can take it apart as we move forward, make some strides this year, and understand that we can come back and continue to work on this as we go forward,” said Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg.
The panel sought to examine the regulatory framework that would rule the new industry, without tackling the reforms to the criminal justice system that would have to come before legalization. The Senate Judiciary panel will address that topic starting next week, according to Senate leaders. Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, and Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, are sponsoring the Senate bill.
The House has not begun to consider the measure. An aide for Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said the bill is undergoing changes from the administration’s original version.
The sales delay backed by the Senate panel was in large part prompted by the committee’s decision to erect a new agency to regulate the legal marijuana market. The market is expected to bring $500 million per year in new revenues to Virginia within five years of implementation.
The new agency would be called the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority.
The panel’s chair, Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, said Friday that the additional time would allow the new agency to set up support systems to guide license applicants through the process. This, in turn, would help ensure that the state awards a sufficient number of licenses to applicants previously impacted by the disparate criminalization of marijuana — in particular Black and Hispanic communities.
“We felt the additional year also provided more framework for the social equity components — the business development and equity line to be in place — the education, the public awareness campaign,” McPike said. “We felt much more comfortable about adding a little bit more time to get it right, versus trying to sort of shoot for 2023.”
The panel made two changes to Northam’s proposal regarding public awareness and safety: a requirement that the state launch a public awareness campaign around the effects of marijuana consumption a year before sales start, and a requirement that the regulatory agency publish a guide on home cultivation.
The public awareness campaign stemmed from a proposal by the American Automobile Association, which argued before the panel that the public needs targeted information around the dangers of driving under the influence of marijuana. The association opposes legalization.
The legalization proposal would allow people to grow marijuana at home, with a limit of two immature and two mature plants per household.
The panel added a requirement to the proposal that the regulatory agency publish a public guide on growing marijuana at home. The guide would include information on “cultivation practices that promote personal and public safety, including child protection, and discourage practices that create a nuisance.”
Amid questions and concerns, Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, proposed to remove home cultivation from the marijuana legalization bill, asking that the topic be considered at a later time and once there was more clarity about how the practice would be legalized.
The proposal failed in a 9-5 vote, with four other Republicans joining McDougle.
The Northam administration and supporting Democrats have emphasized legalization as key to halting and addressing years of disparate criminalization of people of color through marijuana laws.
The Senate panel on Friday, at the urging of Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, added a requirement that the four administrative boards that would oversee the legalization process have memberships that reflect the racial and geographic diversity of the state.
The Virginia ACLU and the advocacy group Marijuana Justice argued Friday for a change to the list of qualifications applicants must meet to qualify for a “social equity” license — a type of license reserved for applicants who have been impacted by disparities in the criminalization of marijuana.
The two groups, and former Richmond City Council member Marty Jewell, also argued Friday that the 30% share of revenues to be directed to communities most impacted by the criminalization of marijuana be higher at 70%.
“Those dollars should go back significantly to communities impacted by over-incarceration and loss of rights. The Black community is in economic free-fall, and this money would go a long way toward at least beginning to construct a floor,” Jewell said.
The Senate panel did not consider either of the proposed changes Friday.
On the topic of local control, the panel changed the mechanism for localities to determine whether they would allow marijuana retailers in the jurisdictions.
The administration had proposed that localities opt-in for marijuana retailers through a local ordinance or referendum, which some Republicans on the panel supported.
The Democrats on the panel instead favored that localities opt-out of allowing marijuana retailers. They could do so through a referendum at their own cost.
Localities wishing to do so would have two years to hold the referendum — January 2022 through December 2023 — before legal sales would begin in 2024.
Opponents to legalization before the panel included physicians, the Virginia Catholic Conference and the Family Foundation, a Christian lobbying group.
Todd Gathje of the Family Foundation urged lawmakers to consider the impact of legalization on children and teens.
“They’re wondering why they’re been told it’s wrong at school and other places, and why their representatives are pushing for legalization,” he said. “The marijuana industry is just like Big Tobacco. They want to make more money, and they know the only way to make more money is to build a customer base, get them addicted, and then keep those customers.”