Virginia Lawmakers Pass Recreational Sales Bill

Lawmakers in Virginia on Tuesday passed a bill that would allow recreational marijuana sales to begin later this year, a significant change from the original start date.

The legislation passed in the Virginia state Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority, by a vote of 23-16, according to local television station WTKR. 

If it were to become law, the measure would permit recreational pot sales to begin on September 15––considerably earlier original start date of New Year’s Day 2024. 

“This ensures consumers can purchase safe, regulated products legally,” said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic state Senator Adam Ebbin, as quoted by the Virginia Mercury.

Ebbin told local station WRIC that his bill “will require that those who get an early sales advantage incubate smaller businesses and those who would like to get into the market.”

Advocates probably shouldn’t start celebrating quite yet, though.

The bill’s prospects outside that chamber may not be as promising. Republicans control the House of Delegates and unlike last year, when then-Democratic Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation that made Virginia the first state in the south to legalize recreational pot, the GOP now has one of its own in the governor’s mansion in Glenn Youngkin, who was elected in November and took office last month.

WTKR reported that three Republican senators voted for the bill that passed out of the chamber on Tuesday, but others in the party complained about the legislation, which spanned 400 pages.

“It’s a bunch of crap. It’s still a mess. It’s still a mess, and we are getting hit with a 400-page substitute at 1:30 today,” said Republican state Senator Mark Peake, as quoted by the station.

GOP lawmakers in Virginia have drafted bills of their own aimed at bringing structure to the nascent cannabis program. 

The Associated Press reported late last month that Republicans there have “drafted bills that would move up the start date for retail sales and get rid of a provision that would give licensing preference to people who’ve been convicted of marijuana crimes,” including “at least eight bills that call for amendments to the law that legalized adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and laid the groundwork for retail sales to begin in 2024.”

Ebbin’s bill now heads to the Republican-controlled House of Delegates, where GOP Speaker Todd Gilbert has expressed wariness over lax regulation.

 “The overriding top-tier concern is that we have to have a regulatory structure in place for retail sales that does not encourage the black market,” a spokesperson for Gilbert told the Associated Press last month.

Northam, who was term-limited after last year, signed the bill into law last spring, establishing the Cannabis Control Authority as the regulatory arm of the new adult-use marijuana program.

The authority has previously said that recreational pot sales will not begin prior to 2024. 

Youngkin, for his part, has said that he will not “seek to overturn the law on personal possession,” but he too has expressed concerns about the regulatory structure of marijuana sales.

“When it comes to commercialization, I think there is a lot of work to be done. I’m not against it, but there’s a lot of work to be done,” Youngkin told Virginia Business in an interview published before he took office.

“There are some nonstarters, including the forced unionization that’s in the current bill. There have been concerns expressed by law enforcement in how the gap in the laws can actually be enforced. Finally, there’s a real need to make sure that we aren’t promoting an anti-competitive industry. I do understand that there are preferences to make sure that all participants in the industry are qualified to do the industry well.”

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