The fate of legal recreational cannabis sales in Virginia may hang in the balance after a Republican who’s skeptical of the reform was elected to replace the state’s pro-legalization governor.
Gov-elect. Glenn Youngkin’s election victory also means that control of Virginia’s House of Delegates now swings back to the Republicans.
While the marijuana legalization bill signed into law by former Gov. Ralph Northam is not in danger of being rescinded, the implementation of a legal marijuana market in Virginia is now under the control of a legislature and governor who’ve previously been hostile to the idea.
The bill to legalize cannabis took effect in July, so Virginians can now legally possess, use and cultivate personal quantities of marijuana. The legal cannabis market, however, is not due to launch sales until early 2024.
Marijuana reform advocates in Virginia are therefore concerned that Republicans may attempt to thwart a retail cannabis industry in the state or, as is more likely, whether they will instead try to craft the rules and regulations of the industry on their own terms at the cost of social equity initiatives.
“The question isn’t legalization. We’ve already enacted that. Now we have the other side of the legalization equation,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML. “We haven’t enacted the other major policy components, which are consumer safety and public safety, and those come from implementing a regulatory structure.”
Throughout the negotiations of the marijuana legalization bill, Republicans by and large opposed efforts to redress the harms of cannabis prohibition which disproportionately fall on communities of color. For instance, many GOP members were against setting aside a certain number of marijuana business licenses for individuals who’d attended an historically Black college or university, or who had been convicted of a low-level marijuana-related offense.
Democrats also included provisions in the bill to provide technical and financial assistance to social equity applicants, and another that would establish a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund to distribute funds to community support programs and services. These initiatives weren’t popular with many Republican lawmakers and they may well now face renewed scrutiny.
The marijuana legalization bill ultimately passed but without a single vote from a Republican. The Democrats still hold a slim majority in the Senate but the balance of power in the House of Delegates now lies with the GOP.
In anticipation of retail marijuana sales in 2024, Virginia lawmakers are set to begin discussing the contours of the legal marketplace in the next session. These discussions will largely determine issues such as how licensing decisions are made, worker’s protections, what marijuana products are permitted and what place social equity commitments have in cannabis tax revenue allocation.
It remains to be seen how these negotiations will unfold in Virginia, but Chelsea Higgs of advocacy organization Marijuana Justice thinks the group will have to be on their toes if they want to meet their social equity objectives.
“The results of this election showed that we have to be flexible and agile and shift our political strategy,” said Higgs, Marijuana Justice’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.”