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Competing Marijuana Sales Bills Move Forward In Virginia’s House And Senate, Though Key Differences Remain



Both chambers of Virginia’s legislature have now given at least preliminary approval to separate plans that would legalize retail marijuana sales in the commonwealth. Significant differences remain between the competing proposals, however, which lawmakers will need to hammer out before sending any bill to the desk of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R).

Meanwhile, measures on resentencing people with prior cannabis convictions and preventing the legal use of marijuana from denying parental visitation or custody rights also moved forward ahead of a crossover deadline this week.

As for the legal sales measures, the Senate gave on initial approval to a bill in that chamber—SB 448—on a voice vote Monday. A final vote to formally send the measure to the House of Delegates is expected Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, the House, for its part, voted 52–48 on third reading for final passage of a competing legal sales bill, HB 698. The vote fell almost entirely along partly lines, with only one Republican—Del. Chris Obenshain—voting for the proposal.

Pending final passage of the Senate legislation this week, each bill will move to the opposite chamber, where lawmakers are expected to make further amendments, setting up likely bicameral negotiations in a conference committee.

Both measures would launch legal, regulated marijuana sales beginning next year, though significant differences remain in terms of timing, licensing, taxes, social equity, criminal penalties and whether cultivators would be able to grow cannabis outdoors. The differences have divided some advocates, though supporters say they’re still hopeful about reaching consensus.

Del. Paul Krizek (D), the sponsor of the House bill, closed comments ahead of second reading passage on the floor last week with a message to Senate lawmakers “who share my belief that now it’s time for the state’s $3 billion illegal cannabis market to have competition from a safe, tested and taxed product.”

“I recognize there’s many aspects of this bill that you might not be comfortable with,” he said. “But I’m committed to working with you and everybody in this body to find a bipartisan bill as we continue work on this complicated topic.”

Use, possession and limited cultivation of cannabis by adults is already legal in Virginia, the result of a Democrat-led proposal approved by lawmakers in 2021. But Republicans, after winning control of the House and governor’s office later that year, subsequently blocked the required reenactment of a regulatory framework for retail sales. Since then, illicit stores have sprung up to meet consumer demand.

Even if the legislature passes a final bill now that Democrats have regained control of both chambers in the 2023 elections, it’s unclear how it will be received by Youngkin. While the governor has not explicitly said he’ll veto a retail marijuana proposal, he signaled last month that he doesn’t have “any interest” in legalizing sales under the Democrat-led plans.

As passed by the House, HB 698 would allow existing medical marijuana operators, five hemp businesses and up to 60 equity-focused microbusinesses open for retail sales on January 1, 2025—earlier than stores would open under the Senate bill. Medical operators would need to pay $400,000 apiece to six microbusinesses through a proposed accelerator program in order to qualify for the early opening.

Cannabis products would be taxed at 9 percent under the House proposal, and outdoor cultivation would be banned completely.

The Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Aaron R. Rouse (D), meanwhile, would not in its current form give any group of license applicants a head start on adult-use sales. Retailers would open later in 2025 after a general application and licensing process. Products would incur a maximum tax rate of about twice that of the House measure, or 17.5 percent, which would consist of a 12.5 percent state excise tax, up to a 3.5 percent local tax that municipalities could impose and the 1.125 percent portion of Virginia’s sales tax that funds K–12 education.

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Outdoor cultivation would be allowed for smaller licensed growers under the Senate proposal, though larger cultivators would be required to grow inside.

Both measures have already seen significant revisions as they made their way through their respective chambers, and advocates have at times shifted alliances as the bills’ provisions changed.

For example, Chelsea Higgs Wise of Marijuana Justice, an equity-focused advocacy group, now favors the House proposal after initially supporting the Senate bill. She’s said that the House legislation’s payments to microbusinesses, which would be licensed through a process that prioritizes people affected by past cannabis convictions, would better nurture a fair, equitable industry than the Senate bill, which she told Marijuana Moment last week “lacks meaningful equity and continues to use the talking point of an equal start without acknowledging that minority businesses are never on the same starting line without meaningful inclusion.”

Jason Blanchette, president of the Virginia Cannabis Association, favors the Senate bill. The House measure’s early start for existing medical marijuana businesses would unfairly advantage large, out-of-state operators, he’s said, and its prohibition on outdoor cultivation would be prohibitively expensive for most small operators.

Nevertheless, Blanchette told Marijuana Moment he’s hopeful that advocates and lawmakers can craft a proposal that will win legislative approval.

“There is definitely a version of these bills that Republicans will vote for,” he said, “and the trick is figuring out which version that is.”

JM Pedini, development director for the advocacy organization NORML and executive director of the group’s Virginia chapter, has consistently encouraged lawmakers throughout the legislative session to advance a measure that expediently opens legal retailers and is straightforward enough to be “palatable” to the governor.

Pedini said last week that after the bills move to the opposite chambers, lawmakers will likely adjust each to suit their own policy preferences, meaning final issues are likely to be settled in a conference committee.

“After crossover, we can expect to see each chamber amend the other’s bill with a substitute of their own version,” they told Marijuana Moment. “But the real work will be done in conference committee, at which point conferees will have to decide if these are simply messaging bills, or if they intend to send Governor Youngkin bills that are palatable enough for him to even consider not vetoing.”

Senators during Monday’s floor session also narrowly approved a separate marijuana-related bill, SB 696, that would allow resentencing of people convicted of past cannabis crimes. The measure, from Sen. Angelia Williams Graves (D), would mandate that individuals incarcerated for certain marijuana offenses would receive automatic resentencing hearings and have their punishments adjusted.

People still serving sentences for certain felony offenses involving possession, manufacture or distribution of marijuana committed prior to July 1, 2021 would need to receive a resentencing hearing by the end of 2024. Individuals convicted of other felony offenses that involve cannabis crimes, meanwhile, would need to have their resentencing hearings scheduled by April 1, 2025.

On third reading on the Senate floor, the bill passed 20–19 along party lines.

Last week, the full Senate also unanimously approved SB 115, which would prevent the state from using marijuana alone as evidence of child abuse or neglect and clarify that “lawful possession or consumption” of state-regulated substances, including cannabis, “shall not serve as a basis to restrict custody or visitation unless other facts establish that such possession or consumption is not in the best interest of the child.”

That measure would further provide that drug testing in child custody and visitation matters “shall exclude testing for any substance permitted for lawful use by an adult” under the state’s alcohol, cannabis and drug laws.

Democrats’ victories last November to clinch control of both legislative chambers have some hopeful the state could enact cannabis sales provisions this year after efforts in recent sessions have fallen short. But given the outcome of floor votes this week, it doesn’t appear likely supporters would be able to muster enough Republican support for either bill in its current form to overcome a veto from the governor.

When he was first elected, Youngkin said he was “not against” allowing commercial sales categorically. He expressed that there were certain Democratic “non-starters” in earlier 2021 legislation such as provisions setting labor union requirements for marijuana businesses—and he wanted to address concerns from law enforcement—but he generally indicated that there was a bill he could support.

That expectation has been tempered during the beginning of the new year, however, with some predicting the governor will veto any legal sales legislation that lawmakers send him.

A sales bill did advance through the Democratic-controlled Senate last session, but it stalled in committee in the House, which at the time had a GOP majority.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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