The future of legal cannabis in Virginia is even more uncertain after an election last week that replaced the commonwealth’s pro-legalization Democratic governor with a Republican who is skeptical about the issue and gave the GOP control of the state House of Delegates.
Possession, personal use and home cultivation will remain legal under a law that already took effect in July, but Democrats’ plan to establish a regulatory framework for commercial production and sales of cannabis products is now in their political opponents’ hands.
The election’s outcome raises the question of whether Republicans will torpedo efforts to establish a legal retail cannabis system entirely—which legalization proponents say would keep consumers locked into what they say is the nation’s fourth-largest illicit marijuana market—or instead seek to negotiate with Democrats to create and regulate a legal industry on their own terms.
“The question isn’t legalization. We’ve already enacted that. Now we have the other side of the legalization equation,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “We haven’t enacted the other major policy components, which are consumer safety and public safety, and those come from implementing a regulatory structure.”
Even if GOP leaders agree to advance some form of legal sales regulations, the change in political control could also scrap Democrats’ effort to build racial and social equity programs into the market. Earlier this year, Republicans broadly opposed measures aimed at addressing the disproportionate impact of the drug war, for example by reserving some business licenses for people who attended historically Black colleges or universities or who were previously convicted of low-level cannabis offenses. Democratic proposals also would have offered technical assistance and low- or no-interest loans to equity applicants as well as created a state Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund to support communities harmed by the drug war. Those components are now in question.
So far, GOP leaders haven’t said much about their intentions, other than pointing out that Democrats may have missed their opportunity.
“They have a framework of things they would like do, but they didn’t have the guts to go ahead and do it when they had the chance,” said Del. Todd Gilbert (R), the current minority leader and a likely leader of the GOP majority next session, told local public news station WHRO. “The General Assembly is left with trying to figure out a path forward in terms of how to deal with that issue.”
“We’re going to have to fix all that and we’re going to have to work with the Democrat Senate to fix all that,” he added.
Gilbert’s office didn’t respond to an email sent by Marijuana Moment seeking more details on his party’s intentions.
Democrats will maintain a narrow majority in the state Senate, members of which were not up for reelection this year.
Lawmakers passed Virginia’s current legalization law in April along party lines, with not a single Republican voting in favor of the bill on the floor of the Senate or Assembly, which at the time were both controlled by Democrats. The policy change legalized possession of up to an ounce of cannabis by adults 21 and older, as well as personal cultivation of up to four plants at home and sharing between adults. Records for a variety of misdemeanor cannabis crimes were also automatically sealed.
Retail sales were expected to begin under the new law in early 2024, but all that hinged on lawmakers coming back to the table in next year’s legislative session to finalize the details—things like how licensing would work, what products would be allowed and how social equity would factor into licensing or revenue decisions.
While the bill gave tentative answers to many of those questions, the regulatory provisions included a reenactment clause, meaning the next legislature would sign off on the details before anything would actually be set in stone. With the shift in control of state government, however, Pedini said the earlier proposal is now effectively off the table.
“Because the votes were entirely along party lines, it doesn’t appear at this time there’s a path either in the House or the Senate for such a bill to succeed in the 2022 General Assembly,” they said. “We had a clear path to expedite adult-use retail sales and new cannabusiness licensing, but it’s not clear that that path exists at this time.”
To lead the commonwealth, Virginia voters chose Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, who in April said he’s “never met anybody who habitually used marijuana and was successful.”
In May he described legalization as “another problem that’s going to be dumped at my feet” should he be elected.
Youngkin was called out by The Washington Post this summer for falsely claiming that “every single state” to have legalized marijuana has fallen short on revenue projections.
The governor-elect will replace outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam (D), whose administration played an active role in crafting the legalization legislation. He pushed for personal use, cultivation and sharing among adults to become legal immediately rather than in 2024, as in earlier versions of the bill. “I personally don’t think we should be arresting or penalizing somebody for something we’re getting ready to legalize,” the governor said in an interview at the time.
Northam was ineligible to run for re-election because Virginia prevents governors from serving consecutive terms.
Youngkin’s challenger, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), made legal cannabis a part of his campaign platform. “The vast majority of Virginians support legal cannabis,” he tweeted in July, “but extreme Republicans are determined to make it illegal again.”
Youngkin’s campaign rejected the claim. “False,” his campaign replied. “Glenn Youngkin will not seek to repeal it.”
Glenn Youngkin will not seek to repeal it; his focus will be on building a rip-roaring economy with more jobs and better wages, restoring excellence in education, and reestablishing Virginia’s commitment to public safety.
— Team Youngkin (@TeamYoungkin) July 2, 2021
Younkin beat out McAuliffe in last week’s election, collecting 50.6 percent of the vote. McAuliffe won 48.6 percent, while Liberation Party candidate Princess Blanding picked up 0.7 percent.
While Pedini warned against putting too much stock in politician’s campaign-trail promises, some existing medical marijuana companies in Virginia seem to be taking Youngkin at his word.
“With Governor-elect Youngkin previously stating that he would uphold the will of the people, and focus on creating a ‘rip-roaring economy,’ we are fully confident that he and the people of Virginia will continue to make progress,” said Jim Cacioppo, the CEO, chairman and founder of multistate cannabis company Jushi Holdings, said in a statement.
While Republicans could prevent the creation of a legal marijuana market or even attempt to undo legalization completely, it’s also possible they could craft a bill more to their liking. Though Republicans opposed this year’s legalization bill, pushback by many GOP lawmakers centered on particular provisions, such a change by Northam that would’ve allowed regulators to revoke a company’s business license if it interfered with union organizing efforts or failed to pay prevailing wage.
The advocacy group Marijuana Justice, which opposed the Democrats’ legalization plan earlier this year on the grounds it failed to adequately advance issues of social and racial justice, told Marijuana Moment it will “continue to oppose bills that do not include equity and we will work with legislators that understand the importance of putting people over partisanship.”
“The results of this election showed that we have to be flexible and agile and shift our political strategy,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, the group’s executive director. “We are unsure what the new priorities of the new administration will be about legalization but our goals of centering those impacted by disproportionately enforced marijuana crimes has not changed.”
The past year has seen Republicans in a number of U.S. states take lead roles on cannabis legalization and other reform measures, though often with different priorities than their Democratic counterparts. Some have pushed for lower taxes and simple business regulations, for example, while others have balked at progressive efforts to establish programs to invest in communities most harmed by the drug war.
Democrats in Virginia, who still control the government until the newly elected Republicans take office, could technically attempt to push through their own plan before the year is over in a new special session, but that’s widely seen as a long shot. Some centrist Democrats, such as Sen. Chap Petersen, already opposed legalization earlier this year and are sending signals they intend to play a stronger role in their party in the coming session.
“Historically Democrats have been disinclined to call lame-duck sessions,” said Pedini, who is also NORML’s national development director. “However when it comes to cannabis, they would certainly have public support on their side.”
More than two-thirds of adults in Virginia (68 percent) support marijuana legalization, according to a poll released in February, including a slim majority (51 percent) of Republican voters.
At one point earlier this year, voters would have had a chance to weigh in themselves. A provision in the Senate version of the legalization bill would have put a legalization referendum on the state ballot, but it was removed from the final bill before passage.
Not only could such a vote have allowed voters to have a say on the cannabis question directly, but some speculated that it could’ve boosted election turnout last week, especially among younger voters, potentially leading to a different result.
Sen. Scott Surovell (D), who was not up for reelection last week, tweeted, “Just imagine how different turnout would have been in the 18-29 y/o cohort if we had put an advisory referendum on recreational marijuana sales on the ballot.”
Just imagine how different turnout would have been in the 18-29 y/o cohort if we had put an advisory referendum on recreational marijuana sales on the ballot as proposed by the Senate @ACLUVA @MarijuanaPolicy @NORML https://t.co/6lBm0fRhJc
— Senator Scott Surovell (@ssurovell) November 5, 2021
For now, legislative conversations will continue—even if the outcomes are more uncertain. As Pedini pointed out, the legislature’s Cannabis Oversight Commission has a subcommittee meeting scheduled for November 10 focusing on expedited sales.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan
Indiana GOP Lawmaker Plans Medical Marijuana Bill As Democrats Push Full Recreational Legalization
“It polls higher than any other issue. We’ve seen 38 other states step up and do the right thing for their citizens. We know it saves lives. We know it offers a better quality of life.”
By Margaret Menge, The Center Square
Democrats in Indiana have launched a campaign to legalize marijuana in the state and appealed to business-friendly Republicans to join to help the state’s economy.
There is some support from Republicans.
“I have a medical cannabis bill ready to go,” Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, said.
He said the bill will be similar to the one he introduced in the last session of the Indiana General Assembly, which would permit the use of medical marijuana by people with “serious medical conditions” as determined by a doctor, and would permit the “cultivation, testing, processing, transportation and dispensing” of medical marijuana by people who hold a valid permit issued by the state.
It also would put the Indiana Department of Health in charge of implementing and enforcing the medical marijuana program.
Indiana is one of just a handful of states that has not legalized medical marijuana.
“It polls higher than any other issue,” Lucas said. “We’ve seen 38 other states step up and do the right thing for their citizens. We know it saves lives. We know it offers a better quality of life.”
In 2016, the national American Legion, which is based in Indianapolis, called on Congress to remove marijuana from Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act and reclassify it to “recognize cannabis as a drug with potential medical value.”
The Legion has also pushed for more research to be done on marijuana related to its potential in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular.
The Indiana American Legion, however, has not taken a position on the issue, and did not discuss the bill Lucas introduced in the last session, spokesperson Josh Marshall said.
He said the issue would have to be reviewed by the organization’s executive committee before any action were taken on the issue in the upcoming session of the legislature, which begins January 3.
Meanwhile, Indiana Democrats are pushing to get the issue on the table.
Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, is set to lead a “community talking circle” at a pizza place in Muncie today to hear from the public about legalizing medical marijuana.
“The reality is that medical cannabis is becoming an accepted and preferred method of treatment throughout the country,” Errington said in a statement from the Indiana House Democratic Caucus on November 29. “Medical cannabis is a safe, non-addictive alternative to opioids that could benefit Hoosiers who live with chronic pain and anxiety disorders, including our brave veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who have sacrificed so much for our state deserve an effective treatment for their pain, rather than a potential criminal record.”
Republicans hold a supermajority in both houses of the legislature and hold every statewide office. But legislative leaders—some of them—have appeared more open on the issue in recent years.
In 2018, the Republican floor leader in the Indiana House of Representatives, Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, authored a resolution calling for an interim study committee to research medical marijuana.
“Hoosiers rightfully want to know what direction Indiana will take,” he said at the time. “I believe it is wise of policymakers to carefully gather public and professional input.”
Lehman told Fox59 last month that he thinks there’s “always room for discussion” about medical marijuana, but that he thought the federal government would have to act first, before Indiana takes action.
DEA Backs White House Plan To Streamline Research On Marijuana, Psychedelics And Other Schedule I Drugs
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and National Institute On Drug Abuse (NIDA) say they are in favor of a White House proposal to streamline the process of researching Schedule I drugs like marijuana and certain psychedelics.
The agencies testified at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Thursday, expressing support for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) research plan. While the focus of the meeting was mostly on a controversial move to strictly classify fentanyl-related substances, the Biden administration proposal’s research components would also help address concerns within the scientific community about the difficulty of studying other Schedule I drugs.
DEA said in written testimony that “expanding access to Schedule I research is a critical part of DEA’s mission to protect public safety and health.”
“It is critical that the scientific and medical community study Schedule I substances, as some may turn out to have therapeutic value,” DEA Principal Deputy Administrator Louis Milione said. “DEA supports the administration’s legislative proposal’s expansion of access to Schedule I research. DEA looks forward to continuing to work with the research community and our interagency partners to facilitate Schedule I research.”
In general, what the administration is proposing is to align the research requirements for Schedule I drugs with those of less-restricted Schedule II drugs. Scientists and lawmakers have consistently pointed out that the existing rules for studying Schedule I controlled substances are excessively burdensome, limiting vital research.
Rather than having each scientist involved in a Schedule I drug study obtain DEA registration, ONDCP wants to make it so multiple researchers at a given institution would be allowed to participate under a single registration. The administration also proposed a policy change where a research institute with studies taking place over multiple locations would only require one overall registration instead of needing to have a specific one for each site.
Another change would allow certain researchers to move ahead with conducting their studies after submitting a notification to the Department of Justice instead of waiting for officials to affirmatively sign off on their proposals. ONDCP’s plan would also waive the requirement for additional inspections at research sites in some circumstances and allow researchers to manufacture small amounts of drugs without obtaining separate registrations. The latter component would not allow cultivation of marijuana, however.
“Even experienced researchers have reported that obtaining a new Schedule I registration, adding new substances to an existing registration, or getting approval for research protocol changes is time consuming,” NIDA Director Nora Volkow said in her testimony. “Unlike for Schedule II through V substances, new and amended Schedule I applications are referred by the DEA to the HHS for a review of the protocol and a determination of the qualifications and competency of the investigator.”
“Researchers have reported that sometimes these challenges impact Schedule I research and deter or prevent scientists from pursuing this critical work,” she said.
In an interview last week, Vokow said that even she—the top federal official overseeing drug research—is personally reluctant to conduct studies on Schedule I substances like marijuana because of the “cumbersome” rules that scientists face when investigating them.
When ONDCP first announced its proposed Schedule I policy changes in September, some experts tempered expectations about the practical effects of aligning Schedule I and Schedule II applications. The difference is largely a matter of extra paperwork for the more restrictive category, they contend.
Regardless, several lawmakers who attended Thursday’s subcommittee hearing expressed enthusiasm about the prospects of these policy changes.
“I’m particularly interested in eroding existing barriers of federal law that limit researchers at academic medical centers from studying Schedule I substances,” Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA) said. “So I’m grateful that our research agencies are working to find effective solutions.”
Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) also weighed in, saying that “we all agree that the current scheduling classification system has made it very difficult for scientists to research the effects of scheduled compounds, which may have medicinal properties.”
“For example, we know that compounds in marijuana have legitimate and beneficial medical uses, despite it being Schedule I,” he said. “So I’m encouraged to see that efforts are being made to allow researchers to study the effects of various compounds. In this proposal.”
ONDCP’s intent to streamline research into Schedule I drugs has been notable and seems to be part of a theme that developed within the administration.
For example, DEA has repeatedly proposed significant increases in the production of marijuana, psilocybin and other psychedelics for research purposes, with the intent of aiding in the development of new federally approved therapeutic medications.
NIDA’s Volkow told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview that she was encouraged by DEA’s prior proposed increase in drug production quota. She also said that studies demonstrating the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics could be leading more people to experiment with substances like psilocybin.
But while the production developments are promising, advocates are still frustrated that these plants and fungi remain in the strictest drug category in the first place, especially considering the existing research that shows their medical value for certain conditions.
There has been at least one recent development in the fight to modernize marijuana research. President Joe Biden signed a massive infrastructure bill last month that includes provisions aimed at allowing researchers to study the actual cannabis that consumers are purchasing from state-legal dispensaries instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.
But that’s just one of numerous research barriers that scientists have identified. A report that NIDA recently submitted to Congress stressed that the Schedule I status of controlled substances like marijuana is preventing or discouraging research into their potential risks and benefits.
A federal appeals court recently dismissed a petition to require the DEA to reevaluate cannabis’s scheduling under the Controlled Substances Act. However, one judge did say in a concurring opinion that the agency may soon be forced to consider a policy change anyway based on a misinterpretation of the therapeutic value of marijuana.
Meanwhile, DEA has given hemp businesses that sell delta-8 THC products a boost, with representatives making comments recently signaling that, at the federal level at least, it’s not a controlled substance at this time.
Separately, the Washington State attorney general’s office and lawyers representing cancer patients recently urged a federal appeals panel to push for a DEA policy change to allow people in end-of-life care to access psilocybin under state and federal right-to-try laws.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Ohio GOP Lawmakers File New Marijuana Legalization Bill
A pair of Ohio Republican lawmakers on Thursday filed a bill to legalize marijuana in the state. The move comes as activists are nearing completion of the first phase of their signature drive for a cannabis legalization initiative.
Reps. Jamie Callender (R) and Ron Ferguson (R) first announced their plan to push the legislative reform proposal in October and circulated a co-sponsorship memo to build support for the measure. Now they’re moving ahead with formal introduction of the “Ohio Adult Use Act.”
The bill would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 50 grams of cannabis. They could also grow up to six plants, only three of which could be mature, for personal use.
Gifting up to 25 grams of marijuana between adult consumers without remuneration would also be permitted.
Adult-use cannabis products would be taxed at 10 percent. After covering administrative costs, tax revenue would be distributed as follows: 50 percent to the state general fund, 25 percent to combat illicit drug trafficking and 25 percent for substance misuse treatment programs.
The state Department of Commerce would be responsible for regulating the new adult-use marijuana and existing medical cannabis program and issuing business licenses through a new Division of Marijuana Control.
Regulators would be limited to approving one retail cannabis dispensary license per 60,000 residents in the state up until January 1, 2027. After that point, the department would would be required to review the program on “at least a biennial basis” to see if more licensees are needed.
The legislation does not contain specific provisions to promote social equity by expunging prior cannabis convictions or prioritizing licensing for communities most impacted under prohibition. That’s despite Callender saying in October that there would be a pathway for expungements “for folks that have prior convictions that would be not illegal after the passage of this bill.”
A spokesperson in the lawmaker’s office told Marijuana Moment that while those components weren’t included in this introduced version, “it is still the plan to add any needed language on the subject once we get it to committee.”
“Conversations on modifications are continuing but with Thanksgiving here and the end of the year approaching, we wanted to get the ball rolling with introduction,” he said.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
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There is at least one equity-related provision to require regulators to conduct a study prior to issuing adult-use licenses “to determine whether there has been prior discrimination in the issuance of marijuana-related licenses in this state, including whether the effects of marijuana prohibition have contributed to a lack of participation by racial or ethnic minorities in the medical marijuana industry in this state.”
If the study does find evidence of discrimination, the department “shall take necessary and appropriate actions to address and remedy any identified discrimination when issuing licenses.”
Under the bill, employers would still be able to enforce anti-drug policies without accommodating workers who use cannabis in compliance with the state law.
The measure would also expand the amount of acreage that licensed cultivators could use to grow cannabis from what is allowed now under the medical marijuana program.
Further, the legislation includes a section that would have the state formally endorse a congressional bill to deschedule marijuana that’s sponsored by Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH).
A separate state legalization bill that was the first of its kind to be introduced in the Ohio legislature earlier this year would similarly legalize the possession, sale and cultivation of cannabis by adults. It’s being championed by Reps. Casey Weinstein (D) and Terrence Upchurch (D), and it does include expungement provisions.
A recent legislative survey found that Republican lawmakers in the state are more supportive of legalizing marijuana than their Democratic colleagues are.
But leadership in the legislature, as well as Gov. Mike DeWine (R), will likely present obstacles for any recreational legalization bill that advances.
House Speaker Robert Cupp (R) laughed when he was asked about Callender’s legislation after its initial announcement, though he added, “Let’s just see where it goes. I haven’t read it yet.”
Callender said that although Republican legislative leaders and the governor are not yet on board, “there is more bipartisan support than most people would think.”
Meanwhile, Ohio activists recently said that they would have enough signatures to force the legislature to consider legalizing marijuana by the end of November. And Weinstein said he feels the citizen-led effort could help build momentum for a legislative approach to ending prohibition.
While it’s only been a few months since Ohio officials cleared the campaign to collect signatures for its measure, Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol spokesperson Tom Haren said that the initial wave of signature gathering “will be completed probably about the end of November.” There’s yet to be an announcement as to whether they succeeded in that timeline.
The measure that legislators would then be required to consider would legalize possession of up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and they could also have up to 15 grams of marijuana concentrates. Individuals could grow up to six plants for personal use, with a maximum 12 plants per household.
Activists must collect 132,887 valid signatures from registered voters for the statutory initiative during this first phase of the effort. If they succeed, the legislature will then have four months to adopt the measure, reject it or adopt an amended version. If lawmakers do not pass the proposal, organizers will then need to collect an additional 132,887 signatures to place the proposal before voters on the ballot in November 2022.
Further demonstrating the appetite for reform in Ohio, voters in seven cities approved ballot measures to decriminalize marijuana possession during last month’s election.
Ohio marijuana activists have also successfully proved that they turned in enough valid signatures to put a local decriminalization initiative before Kent voters after having missed the 2021 ballot due to a verification error on the part of county officials.
Separately, Ohio senators recently filed a bill to expand the state’s medical cannabis program, in party by allowing physicians to recommend marijuana if they “reasonably” believe it could benefit the patient.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.