Virginia lawmakers just defied the state's new Republican governor and shut down a bill that would have reintroduced cannabis prohibition less than a year after legalization took effect.
Last year, Virginia became the first Southeastern US state to fully legalize adult-use cannabis. Personal pot possession and use became legal for adults last July, but retail sales are not slated to begin until 2024. In January, state Sen. Emmett Hanger (R) proposed SB 591, one of the first bills to attempt to impose regulations on the future industry. In its initial form, the bill would have banned the sale of cannabis edibles in shapes that could appeal to children, like fruits, animals, or candy.
Despite its Republican origin, this simple regulation appealed to Democratic lawmakers and legalization proponents alike. But as the bill advanced, lawmakers tacked on an amendment that explicitly banned the sale of any product that contained more than 0.3% or 0.25 milligrams of THC per serving. The amendment extended this ban to include all forms of THC, including delta-8, a popular hemp-derived cannabinoid.
The state's hemp producers were outraged at the attempt to ban their most popular products, but lawmakers overrode their concerns. This March, both chambers of the legislature approved the bill and sent it to Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) for approval. But instead of just signing the bill into law, Youngkin – an opponent of cannabis reform who narrowly won the governorship in last year's election – added his own amendments to the bill and sent it back to the legislature.
Most shockingly, the new amendments would have partially reversed the state's recent legalization law by recriminalizing the possession of over two ounces of weed. Under the current law, anyone caught violating this possession limit can be fined and charged with a civil infraction, but the amendment would have returned this violation to a full criminal charge.
State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), sponsor of the state's original adult-use bill, told ARLnow that the governor's “proposed penalties for personal possession of two ounces of marijuana were more punitive than the laws that were in place prior to Virginia’s enactment of decriminalization in 2020.”
Youngkin also added in several new provisions to restrict sales of delta-8 and CBD products, but these “amendments were ill-constructed, poorly thought out, and left lots of loopholes,” according to Ebbin. These loopholes would have made it easy for companies to sell synthetic marijuana products that did not contain delta-8-THC, and would not have required companies to disclose the actual amount of THC contained in their products.
This disaster of a bill returned to the state Senate last month, but the final vote ended up in a 20 to 20 deadlock. Fortunately, Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears (R) stepped in to break the tie and vote the bill down. The bill was returned to committee, but since this year's legislative session is already complete, it will not come up for debate again this year.
“The good news is, Governor Youngkin’s effort to recriminalize personal possession failed,” said JM Pedini, NORML Development Director and the Executive Director of Virginia NORML, in a statement. “The bad news is lawmakers’ inaction today allows for products containing unregulated and potentially unsafe synthetically-derived THC products to continue to proliferate in Virginia.”
“With his attempt to create new ways to criminalize Virginians for personal possession of cannabis having failed, Governor Youngkin’s administration should actually serve his constituents by establishing a legal adult-use marijuana market and ensuring that all cannabis products sold in the Commonwealth are accurately labeled and regulated for consumer safety,” Pedini added.