Several key committees in the Virginia state legislature have separately approved a new bill to create a taxed and regulated legal cannabis market.
This new bill, proposed by Governor Ralph Northam and top Democratic lawmakers, would make it legal for adults to buy and possess up to one ounce of weed and grow up to four plants each. Cannabis sales would be hit with a hefty 21 percent sales tax, which would be used to fund pre-K education (40 percent), social equity measures (30 percent), drug treatment programs (25 percent) and public health initiatives (5 percent).
Lawmakers introduced the adult-use bill into the state House of Delegates and Senate last month, at the beginning of a short legislative session that is scheduled to end later in February. In order to advance to the next stage of the session, the legalization bill must pass both chambers by this Friday, a crossover deadline imposed by the state. Several key committees are now racing to approve this legislation so that it can come up for a floor vote before that deadline.
Over the past three days, the bills have passed five different committees. Now, the House and Senate versions of the bill only need to pass one committee each before they can advance to a floor vote. Many committee members seemed eager to dig deep into the details, but advocates are currently pushing lawmakers to simply pass the legislation as is so that it can advance to the next stage of the session.
“At this point it’s unnecessary to get mired in minutiae,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, to Marijuana Moment. “Currently, efforts are largely focused on advancing the bills to their required floor votes before the crossover deadline, and in a posture that is generally acceptable by the majority of each chamber.”
Even so, lawmakers have made some amendments to the bills. The initial bill would have granted oversight of the cannabis industry to the state's existing alcohol regulatory board, but both versions of the bill would now create a separate cannabis regulatory authority. Both versions have also been changed to give the state another entire year to sort out its licensing and regulations, pushing the start date of legal sales back to January 2024.
State lawmakers already decriminalized minor cannabis possession last year, reducing the penalty to a $25 fine with no risk of jail time. The Senate version of the adult-use bill would make minor pot possession completely legal starting this July, but the House is still debating the issue. Some lawmakers are concerned that legalizing possession so long before sales begin would fuel black market sales, but others have argued that there is no sense in having police continue to bust people for a plant that will soon be legal.
Committees are also debating business license caps, adult-use licensing for the state's existing medical cannabis businesses, regulations on home-grows, and social equity measures. The bill also includes provisions to automatically expunge prior convictions for minor pot possession, but lawmakers have said that they need to amend the bill to overcome technical issues with how these criminal cases are coded under current law.
“There are still a multitude of finer points to debate, and that’s to be expected a little further along in the legislative process,” Pedini explained to Marijuana Moment. “Should both bills succeed, they will be sent to a conference committee for reconciliation.” At this point, lawmakers would be able to hammer out the final details on regulation, taxes, and social equity measures.