A Senate proposal to legalize commercial sales of marijuana in Virginia has passed a key hurdle, clearing the Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services in a 10–5 vote on Friday morning. The bill needs to advance quickly through additional committees in the coming weeks in order to stay alive in the current session.
The measure, SB 448, from Sen. Aaron Rouse (D), would begin licensing adult-use marijuana businesses in July of this year, though retail licenses wouldn’t be available until 2025. Local governments would be able to ban commercial cannabis activity, but only with approval from voters.
With the committee’s approval, the measure next advances to the Senate Courts of Justice Committee next week. From there it would go to the Finance and Appropriations Committee, where it needs to land by February 5 to stay in play. There’s also a crossover deadline on February 13, before which point the Senate would need to send the bill to the House, which is considering its own cannabis sales legislation.
“We are working very hard to establish a framework that articulates a set of values on how we want this market to evolve,” Sen. Barbara Favola (D), who chairs the Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee, said on Friday. “We have a framework where there’s equity issues, there’s a limitation on licenses and there’s a fair amount of authority delegated to the [Cannabis Control Authority].”
At a Senate cannabis subcommittee hearing a day earlier, lawmakers chose Rouse’s bill over a competing plan from Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), SB 423, which would have allowed existing medical marijuana dispensaries to begin sales to adults more quickly. Critics said the carveout would have unfairly advantaged existing businesses and allowed them to dominate the adult-use market over smaller players.
“We elected to use Sen. Rouse’s vehicle as opposed to Sen. Ebbin’s, because there’s some big differences in terms of timing and structure,” Sen. Scott Surovell (D), who chaired Thursday’s cannabis subcommittee meeting, said ahead of Friday’s vote.
A bill identical to Ebbin’s has also been filed in the House, Surovell noted. That is “likely to come over” to the Senate, he told the committee, “and the Senate approach, we think, sort of puts us in a maximum position to negotiate this.”
As Surovell described, Rouse’s bill would license five categories of businesses—cultivators, manufacturers, transporters, retailers and testing laboratories—which would be regulated by the state’s existing Cannabis Control Authority.
Asked by Favola whether the same operator could apply multiple license types, Surovell said he believed an individual could invest in various tiers of the industry but could not be a controlling owner of all the businesses. If the bill becomes law, he added, regulators would make further rules.
“All this is really subject to the Cannabis Control Authority coming up with regulations to further spell out a lot of this,” Surovell said. “This is a 180-page bill…and there’s a lot of details that CCA has to work out.”
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So far, lawmakers have avoided discussion of the bill’s tax provisions or impacts on criminal justice law, leaving those matters for the Senate’s courts and fiscal committees to handle under their jurisdictions.
One change requested at Friday’s hearing would redefine how the size of cultivators is measured. Currently, the largest tier of growers under the bill would be capped at 2,000 individual plants. Industry advocates want to replace that with a limit on the square footage size of canopy, the physical space where plants are grown.
“Two thousand plants is nothing. Two thousand plants will not even begin to address the illicit marketplace,” said a representative from Jushi, a multi-state cannabis operator, claiming that on the medical side, the company uses “12 plants per patient just to extract the medicines we need.”
“We need to use a market standard, like 100,000 square feet of floor space for a canopy,” he said. “We will never get where we need to be at 2,000 plants.”
But Rouse pushed back on the proposed change.
“It undermines what we’re trying to do in terms of supporting small businesses,” he said, calling plant counts “easier to track” and saying the current definition provides more flexibility for small businesses.
“The CCA most certainly can address this, but as a patron of this bill, I do not consider it a friendly amendment.”
Chelsea Higgs Wise, an advocate with the group Marijuana Justice, encouraged lawmakers to let regulators handle the issue. She noted that under the state’s current medical marijuana program, cultivators do not currently have a canopy limit.
“As we are looking for what we’re doing on adult use,” she said, “it’s important to just compare and make sure we’re not limiting our adult use and allowing other folks in the market to continue to go on.”
People with felonies or criminal convictions involving moral turpitude would be barred from applying for marijuana business licenses for a period of seven years under the current bill, though some at Thursday’s subcommittee hearing pushed to shorten that period.
Changes on edibles were also briefly discussed. CCA could set edible serving sizes at up to 10 milligrams THC, with the state Board of Health reviewing changes.
A number of smaller changes were made to the proposal at Thursday’s earlier subcommittee meeting. Among them, lawmakers clarified that law enforcement could not participate in the marijuana industry. They also removed a separate provision that would have barred lawmakers themselves from the industry.
“I didn’t think we should be setting precedent on that,” Surovell told Favola, noting that Virginia’s is a part-time legislature. “Restricting our General Assembly members’ ability to participate in any industry or whatever is not something we’ve ever done before, I don’t think.”
Another amendment at Thursday’s subcommittee meeting added a provision regarding equity criteria for veterans, requiring that they were “discharged in a manner other than dishonorable.” Another amendment would limit the number of testing licenses that can be issued, a change intended to limit so-called lab shopping.
“There was some testimony about concerns that if you have too many testing facilities, then places will shop testing facilities until they find the place that will basically give them the results that they want,” a staffer explained at Friday’s full committee hearing. “We kind of ditched that to the CCA to come with the appropriate limit instead of choosing a number.”
Social equity provisions were “the largest chunk of the discussion” in the subcommittee, Surovell noted, though those issues didn’t come up at Friday’s hearing.
Wise, at Marijuana Justice, has said the bill should give priority treatment to people directly affected by the war on drugs, for example through arrest or conviction.
Others have called for Rouse’s bill to add specific protections for workers—protections that were included in Virginia lawmakers’ first attempt at legalizing commercial marijuana.
A representative from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union said Thursday that the group wants to see mandatory labor agreements required in the bill to protect workers in the cannabis industry.
“We are concerned about the lack of worker protections in this bill, specifically with labor peace agreements,” she said. “This has been in previous iterations of the bill. It’s been used in this industry in other states with great success.”
Jason Blanchette, president of the Virginia Cannabis Association, told Marijuana Moment on Friday that he feels good about the bill.
“This is a well thought out bipartisan approach that we believe fairly regulated the market and gives everyone market access,” he said in a message, emphasizing that plenty of unlicensed cannabis transactions are already happening in Virginia.
“This bill doesn’t create an adult use market,” he said. “We already have a $3 billion adult use market. This bill simply regulates the existing adult use market.”
Use, possession and limited personal 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 state House and governor’s office in the 2021 elections, later blocked the required reenactment of a regulatory framework for retail sales. In the interim, the unlicensed market has expanded.
Democrats’ victories last November to clinch control of both legislative chambers, however, have some cannabis advocates hopeful that the state could enact cannabis sales provisions this year. But that path requires building consensus among Democrats in the legislature while also passing a bill that can avoid a possible veto from Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R)—or galvanizing enough lawmakers in the polarized state to overcome a veto.
That process of reconciliation is now underway.
Regardless of what specifics end up in the legal sales bill, it’s likely to face a skeptical reception from Youngkin, who said earlier this month that he doesn’t have “any interest” in legalizing sales under the Democrat-led bills.
“I just don’t have a lot of interest in pressing forward with marijuana legislation,” he told reporters following his latest State of the Commonwealth address.
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D) said at the time that it’s “an important public safety matter that we have a regulated market.”
“The governor should be careful,” she said. “A bill gets to his desk, and he vetoes it, I’m not sure what that communication is going to be to the public about their safety.”
Youngkin’s disinterest in marijuana reform isn’t necessarily a surprise. Advocates were relieved that he committed to simply not attempt to overturn the noncommercial legalization law enacted by his Democratic predecessor in 2021.
Youngkin said he was “not against” allowing commercial sales, per se when he was first elected. He expressed that there were certain Democratic “non-starters” such as provisions setting labor union requirements for marijuana businesses—and he wanted to address concerns from law enforcement—but he generally indicated that he did believe there was a bill he could support.
That expectation has been tempered during the beginning of the new year, however.
Last session, a cannabis sales bill did advance through the Democratic-controlled Senate, but it stalled out in committee in the House, which at the time had a GOP majority.