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House Republicans kill legislation to kick start legal sales of marijuana in Virginia

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Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria

Marijuana seed giveaway draws large crowd in Henrico

House Republicans on Monday killed legislation intended to kick start the legal sale of recreational marijuana in Virginia, arguing that there is not enough time to perfect the complex legislation, while promising to address it next year.

Virginia last year became the first state in the South to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, an effort led by Democrats, who then had sweeping power. Lawmakers in 2021 punted the creation of a new legal market to the current session in an effort that appeared to fail on Monday.

Republicans, who took control of the House this year, had shown reluctance to move decisively on the issue and did not pass a measure of their own. Senate Bill 391 from Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, would have launched sales by medical providers and hemp processors in September; it was the only viable bill on the topic.

Monday’s move means that possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and sharing among adults will remain legal in Virginia, but selling the drug outside of the medical context will still be prohibited.

Ebbin and other Democratic lawmakers argued that delaying the creation of a legal market will encourage the illicit market to grow beyond the point that it can be reined in down the line.

“We are basically providing a year for the growth and strengthening of the illicit market,” said Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond. Before watching his bill die, Ebbin said the question before the committee was whether Virginia’s cannabis environment would be “a regulated, confined marketplace for adults or a foreign-import, crime-subsidization program proliferating in school yards and gas stations.”

Democratic leaders in the House chided GOP leaders, arguing that failing to launch a regulated market would leave Virginians vulnerable to an unregulated product.

House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said Democrats left Republicans with a “great big mess” when they legalized marijuana without developing policy to erect the legal market. Last year, Democrats in the House and Senate could not come to an agreement on how to structure the legal market and deferred the work for this year. They faced an unexpected turn of events when the GOP took control of the House in the November elections.

“We are left having to clean up their mess and we will not make it worse by rushing to fix it,” Gilbert said.

During Monday’s hearing, Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth, questioned whether Ebbin’s proposal was the “correct vehicle” for creating a legal market in Virginia, “if in fact it’s what we wish to do.” Republicans, including Gov. Glenn Youngkin, made clear they did not intend to roll back marijuana legalization in Virginia during the current legislative session, but it remains unclear what they see as the future for marijuana policy in Virginia.

“I think this is a bigger issue than we can correct in two weeks’ time,” Campbell said. “The imperative is that we continue to study this over the year trying to get this right.”

Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, said there are still a lot of “cross-wires on this issue.” The subcommittee she chairs voted 5-3 along party lines to punt Ebbin’s bill to 2023.

Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter reiterated that the governor does not want to overturn legalization of marijuana but “has serious concerns” about the original legislation. “The House and Senate have been unable to make progress on these issues,” Porter said.

The Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which supported the bill, called it “an incredible disappointment.”

“The only benefit with the failure of this legislation was to the illicit market,” said JM Pedini, the executive director of Virginia NORML.

Pedini noted that in 2020, Virginia had the fourth-largest illicit market in the nation, encompassing about $1.8 billion in sales, or 3% of the estimated $60 billion national market, according to New Frontier Data’s U.S. Cannabis Report.

“Undoubtedly, that will only grow as we continue to exist in this no man’s land between legalization and retail sales.”

Gracie Burger of the Last Prisoner Project, a criminal justice reform advocacy group, said Ebbin’s bill would have also addressed concerns around the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws. The bill would have downgraded some misdemeanors to civil penalties, ended some marijuana-related mandatory minimum sentences and created a path for resentencing people serving sentences for marijuana-related crimes.

Meanwhile, Marijuana Justice, a group that has been advocating for marijuana legalization in Virginia on Monday expressed support for Republicans’ decision.

The group had expressed concerns that the legislation Senate Democrats were considering would allow medical processors an advantage in the new market over social justice licensees — businesses founded by people impacted by the prohibition of marijuana and the racially disparate enforcement. They also opposed the creation of new criminal penalties for possession of amounts between an ounce and a pound.

“We saved Black residents of Virginia from being targeted by new possession crimes in Virginia,” said Marijuana Justice’s Chelsea Higgs Wise said.

Resentencing

House Republicans on Monday declined to kill a separate bill that would let people serving sentences for marijuana-related crimes to request that those terms be recalibrated.

Sens. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, introduced Senate Bill 745. In a hearing Monday afternoon, a House panel moved the bill forward suggesting room for compromise.

Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, who chairs the House courts panel, said the committee was prepared to kill the bill Monday. But, he said, the bill is part of broader politicking between House Republicans and Senate Democrats, and would be discussed further before Friday, when the House courts panel will finish its work.

Before moving it forward, the committee substituted Surovell’s proposed language for resentencing with language that instead called for a government study on the issue. Bell said it was essentially placeholder text.

mleonor@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6254

Twitter: @MelLeonor_

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