Virginia state lawmakers are calling for an earlier start to licensed sales of recreational marijuana, arguing that the delay between the legalization of cannabis possession and the launch of regulated retailers will encourage illicit sales. But some legislators are wary that the idea could jeopardize the state’s cannabis social equity program before it gets off the ground and are urging their colleagues to proceed with caution.
At the inaugural meeting of Virginia’s Joint Commission on Cannabis Oversight on Tuesday, Democratic Delegate Paul Krizek told his fellow lawmakers that marijuana reform as it now stands leaves the state’s residents in a legal quandary.
“We have legalized the use of marijuana, but we have not legalized the actual purchase of marijuana,” said Krizek.
“What we need to do is get the safe sales of marijuana out there as soon as possible,” he added.
Virginia Cannabis Possession Legalized In July
In April, Virginia state lawmakers passed a bill to legalize the sale and use of recreational marijuana. Under that legislation, personal possession of cannabis became legal on July 1. But licensed sales of recreational marijuana are not slated to begin until 2024, a delay designed to give regulators time to draft rules and issue licenses to adult-use cannabis businesses. At Tuesday’s meeting, Krizek said that the lack of licensed retailers can be confusing for consumers, who may mistakenly buy from illicit suppliers.
“People know it’s legal, and they probably think they can buy it legally. And it’s going to become more and more difficult to explain that to the general public,” he said. “We don’t want to facilitate an illegal market out there.”
Several lawmakers have expressed support for a proposal that would allow the state’s existing medical marijuana dispensaries to sell recreational cannabis to all adults 21 and older. Under current regulations, medical marijuana dispensaries are only permitted to serve patients registered with the state pharmacy board.
The proposal would require medical marijuana dispensaries that wish to serve adult-use customers to serve as a business incubator for five applicants that qualify for the state’s upcoming cannabis social equity program, which is designed to help ensure that members of communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs have a path to business ownership in the legal market.
Ngiste Abebe, the vice president of public policy at medical marijuana licensee Columbia Care, told local media that the plan to allow recreational cannabis customers to purchase at medical dispensaries would be a benefit for consumers and the nascent industry.
“Every other state that has legalized cannabis has leveraged their existing medical market to not just increase access but generate the tax revenue and funds for social equity priorities,” said Abebe.
Not All Lawmakers On Board With Early Launch
However, not all lawmakers are in favor of an early launch for retail cannabis sales in Virginia. House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, also a Democrat, is concerned that the plan could work against the goals of the social equity program, noting that other state programs designed to help businesses owned by women or people of color have not always been successful.
“A minority or woman is brought in, and a company says, ‘We’ll incubate you. You’re a partner. Wink,’” Herring said. “Then they get access to a social equity license. It does harm to the whole spirit of what we were trying to do.”
The majority leader warned her colleagues in the legislature to consider all consequences of changing the current legalization timeline.
“If we go down that route, let’s really be careful,” Herring said of the plan for early recreational cannabis sales, “because we do not want to make the mistakes of the past, where it’s not in the spirit of what was intended.”
Democratic Senator Adam Ebbin, the chair of the joint oversight commission, said it is too early to know if moving up the launch of retail cannabis sales will be translated into a bill for the next legislative session, which begins in January. But he said the matter is “an important issue to flag.”
“It’s worthy of this subcommittee to consider if it can be done while still ensuring robust participation by social equity applicants,” he said.
A.J. Herrington is a San Diego-based freelance writer covering cannabis news, business, and culture.