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Virginia Senate Holds First Marijuana Legalization Hearing, With More Scheduled Next Week

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A Virginia Senate committee held an initial hearing on Friday on a bill to legalize marijuana that was introduced with support from the governor just two days ago.

The legislation’s quick consideration by the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee is an early sign that lawmakers intend to advance it expeditiously. Two additional hearings are scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday in a newly formed subcommittee of the panel that’s specifically focused on cannabis policy.

The bill, which is being carried by top Senate and House leaders, would create a system of regulated and taxed marijuana sales and production, and 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.

After the bill is considered by the new marijuana-focused subcommittee next week, the full Rehabilitation panel is expected to hold a vote next Friday to refer it to the Senate Judiciary Committee. After that panel considers the legislation, it would head to the Finance Committee before coming to the full Senate floor.

At the initial hearing, members heard testimony from a representative of Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) administration and asked questions about components of the bill such as those concerning expungements and social equity grants.

The legislation’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 the governor’s office late last year.

Those studies were required under a marijuana decriminalization bill that was approved 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.

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.

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).


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Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Brad Copenhaver, who testified on behalf of the Northam administration on Friday, emphasized that the “keystone of this entire bill is marijuana legalization of a social equity endeavor.”

Advocates have 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.

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 introduction of the bill 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.

Northam said during his State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday that cannabis prohibition was deliberately enacted as a means to discriminate against people of color.

“The administration’s proposal does an excellent job of centering equity and restorative justice, but we are greatly concerned by the proposed rollbacks of newly enacted decriminalization measures and creation of new crimes for consumption and possession,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment.

“Not only would this escalation in criminalization not increase public safety, this will specifically target young, Black, Brown, and poor Virginians, those who are already overwhelmingly and disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition,” Pedini, who also serves as NORML’s national development director, said. “Governor Northam wants to get this right, and NORML will be offering policy guidance to help the administration do just that. It’s time to move forward, not backward, with cannabis policies in the Commonwealth.”

Separate legislation to legalize cannabis for adult use was filed by Del. Steve Heretick (D) last week.

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.

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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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