The governor of Virginia and top lawmakers unveiled a bill on Wednesday that would legalize marijuana in the Commonwealth—and all signs indicate that legislators plan to move quickly to advance it.
The proposal would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to four plants for personal use, two of which could be mature.
It’s being jointly carried by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D) and Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas (D) in their chamber. In the House of Delegates, Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D) and Del. Don Scott (D) will carry the companion version.
The legislature decriminalized simple marijuana possession last year, but advocates have kept their eyes set on broader reform.
“We know that the prohibition on cannabis has failed in Virginia, in the Commonwealth and in the country,” Ebbin told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “It’s important that we have equity in mind as we legalize marijuana and that’s what we’re up for.”
An initial hearing on the legislation is expected to be held in the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services on Friday, after which point it will be put before a new subcommittee that’s being created to specifically focus on cannabis legalization.
The bill’s provisions have been informed by two official state studies on legalization that were recently conducted by a legislative commission and a separate working group comprised of four Virginia cabinet secretaries and other officials, both of which looked at how to effectively implement legalization and submitted recommendations to Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) office late last year.
Many of those recommendations have been incorporated into the new legislation, including provisions to promote social equity in the cannabis market. Notably, it would also apportion almost half of the tax revenue the state collects from marijuana sales to funding pre-kindergarten education—a policy championed by First Lady Pamela Northam.
Here are the main components of the new Virginia marijuana legalization bill:
-A new 21 percent tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, and local jurisdictions that allow marijuana businesses to operate could levy an additional three percent tax. Existing state sales taxes would also apply on purchases, for a total potential 30 percent tax rate.
-Revenue from the new state tax would go toward funding pre-k education (40 percent), a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund (30 percent), substance misuse and treatment programs (25 percent) and public health initiatives (five percent).
-Possession of up to one ounce would be lawful for adults. It would make possession of more than one ounce but up to five pounds of marijuana a civil penalty punishable by a $25 fine.
-Local municipalities would have to proactively opt-in to allow cannabis businesses to operate in their area. That could be done through an action of a local city council or via a ballot measure initiated by voters.
-The state’s alcohol regulatory body would be renamed the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Control Authority, and it would be responsible for promulgating rules and issuing licenses.
-There would be five main licensing categories: cultivation, manufacturing, testing, wholesaler and retail. People could hold licenses from multiple categories in some cases, though there are some exceptions.
-People with prior marijuana convictions would have their records automatically expunged, and those currently serving sentences for cannabis-related offenses could petition for a resentencing hearing.
-To promote social equity for communities most impacted by the drug war, the bill would create a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board, Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund and Virginia Cannabis Equity Business Loan Fund. Those identified as social equity applicants would be eligible for low- or no-interest loans for their businesses.
-Beyond the main regulatory body, the bill would also establish two advisory boards: the Cannabis Control Advisory Board and Cannabis Public Health Advisory Council.
-The legislation contains provisions to allow smokeable hemp and establish hemp testing lab licenses.
-Regulations for the marijuana market would have to be promulgated by July 1, 2022. Retail cannabis sales could not start until January 1, 2023.
-That the secretaries of agriculture and forestry, health and human resources and public safety and homeland security would be directed to form a work group with the aim of collecting data on “the use and misuse of marijuana in order to determine appropriate policies and programs to promote public health and safety.” They would have to issue a report and recommendations by November 1, 2021.
Ebbin said that when it comes to equity, “we need three things.”
“That includes expungement of past marijuana related convictions,” he said. “It means promoting diverse participation in the industry in terms of ownership and employment, and ensuring that profits are returned directly to the communities most harmed by the marijuana prohibition.”
A summary of the legislation from Northam’s administration lists five priorities for the reform. Chief among them is social, racial and economic equality.
“Marijuana prohibition has historically been based in discrimination, and the impact of criminalization laws have disproportionately harmed minority and low-income communities as result,” it states, adding that the legalization legislation will “focus on undoing these harms.”
The governor’s summary also talks about prioritizing public health, youth prevention, air quality and data collection.
Advocates celebrated the bill’s introduction and are optimistic about the prospects of getting the reform enacted this session, but they also feel the legislation as proposed can be improved upon.
“While the administration’s proposal does a good job at centering equity in a new adult-use marketplace, it falls short on a number of priorities for Virginians,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “The low legal possession amount, limited personal cultivation, protracted implementation date, and new crimes established by the legislation are problematic and should immediately be addressed by the patrons.”
“Virginians have been very clear in their priorities for adult-use legalization efforts,” Pedini, who also serves as NORML’s national development director, said. “We’ll continue working with the legislature to make sure Virginia gets it right.”
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One problematic provision from advocates’ perspective is that the bill would make public consumption a misdemeanor, whereas currently it is a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine.
Additionally, it seems to increase the fine for people aged 18-20 who possess cannabis. The fine would be $250 for a first offense, and the legislation also stipulates that underage people could be subject to mandatory substance misuse treatment for violating the law.
This development comes one month after the governor included provisions to lay the groundwork for cannabis legalization in a budget proposal that also calls for millions of dollars to support expungements. Northam had campaigned on merely decriminalizing possession, but he publicly backed broader legalization of marijuana for adult use in November.
“Marijuana prohibition has historically been disproportionately impacting and discriminating against people of color,” Ebbin and Lucas said in a joint statement attached to the Senate agenda. “In 2021, we will be presenting an equitable, forward-thinking bill to develop a regulated, adult-use market for cannabis which will reform our criminal justice system and begin the long process of undoing the harms of prohibition.”
“This bill will expunge the records of those arrested for marijuana possession, promote diverse participation in the new industry, and dedicate a portion of revenues to providing pre-K education to at-risk children,” they said.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus also endorsed the legalization bill Wednesday morning.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus also endorsed the legalization bill Wednesday morning.
Proud to work with the @VaBlackCaucus to equitably legalize marijuana in Virginia. Among other measures, this bill expunges prior marijuana convictions, reinvests money in over-policed communities, and promotes diverse ownership in the industry.https://t.co/AEjoT2JxWF
— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) January 13, 2021
Separate legislation to legalize cannabis for adult use was filed by Del. Steve Heretick (D) last week.
Both the House of Delegates and Senate passed separate expungements bills during a special session last year, but negotiators failed to work out a deal on a unified approach.
Meanwhile, legislation to stop police from searching people or seizing property based solely on the smell of marijuana in Virginia is set to take effect after lawmakers adopted recommended changes from the governor in October.
Also during the recently concluded special session, Northam signed another bill that will allow people issued summonses for cannabis offenses under the state’s new decriminalization law to prepay their civil penalty rather than having show up in court.
Read a summary and full text of the new Virginia marijuana legalization bill below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.