Virginia lawmakers debate next steps for marijuana legalization

Marijuana Legalization
Posted at 6:17 PM, Feb 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-03 09:45:24-05

PORTSMOUTH, Va. - At Columbia Care dispensary, Tuesday brought another busy morning with people coming by to purchase medical marijuana.

Among them - a Navy veteran named Levi Corbiere, who's been using medical marijuana to treat pain.

"Now, I've been doing this and it has been a lot better," he said.

As Virginia debates the next steps for marijuana legalization, Corbiere thinks legal retail sales would help others like him. "I think it would really open up a whole new avenue for veterans especially," he said.

Last year, lawmakers voted along party lines to legalize simple possession of marijuana but left it up to future legislative action to work out how retail sales would work. They're currently scheduled to begin in 2024.

Right now, lawmakers are debating several proposals, including one from Sen. Siobhan Dunnvant (R-Henrico County) that would allow retail sales to start July 1 at already operating medical dispensaries.

"I think it's been very hap-hazard here. It was legal last year, but you can't legally purchase it. You can grow it, but you can't purchase it," she said.

The bill would sunset, or end, once the Cannabis Control Authority is established to oversee retail sales at shops.

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"What I have to offer is that that reliable process that we've put in place is maybe a way that we can bridge to when we're ready with subject matter experts that have the comprehensive view of how we implement this for Virginia," she said.

Dunnvant joined with all of her Republican colleagues in opposing the legalization bill last year, but now with Republicans in the majority in the House of Delegates and Gov. Youngkin in office, Republicans will have a much bigger say this go around in figuring out the regulation of sales.

Other proposals, including one from a prominent Democrat, put the state of legal retail sales at January 1, 2023.

The Executive Director of Virginia NORML, JM Pedini, has been pushing the state to speed up the start of sales.

"Sooner really is better. Virginians really have been vocal in calling for the timeline to be sped up. Adults over 21 and older ought to be able to shop at stores that are already safely operating in the Commonwealth," Pedini said.

Still other groups, including one called Marijuana Justice, think 2024 is the better year. The group says that would give the state time to ensure sales and the licensing process are done in a fair and equitable way.

"We always knew that taking our time with developing an industry would be the right thing to do," said Chelsea Higgs Wise, the Executive Director of Marijuana Justice.

Republican lawmakers have said they are working with the Youngkin administration on the issue.

"It's a mess and we've been handed it. We hope to deal with it responsibly," said House Speaker Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) last month.

In a statement, a Youngkin spokesperson said he does not want to repeal the possession law, but "he does have serious concerns about the pieces of the bill establishing a commercial market."

The statement continues, adding the current law, "establishes an unstable market that includes anti-competitive business provisions that set Virginia up to fail."

The current bill would give people who have been convicted of misdemeanor marijuana crimes a potential leg up in obtaining a license. Democrats say it would help make up for African Americans being disproportionately impacted by marijuana laws.

A Republican proposal would do away with that provision with Republicans saying it's not fair. Marijuana Justice wants it to stay.

"These are the folks who have been targeted, but they also know the most about the plant. They know the most about their community," said Wise.

Another Republican idea would lower the sales tax on marijuana to make sure people don't turn to the black market for sales.

With a new administration and more powers, Republicans are hoping to get a bill across the finish line in the coming weeks.

"The whole point of adult regulation is that it's available, it's reliable, it's safe, and it's not available to kids," said Dunnvant.