General Assembly Punts Cannabis Reform

General Assembly Punts Cannabis Reform

This week, the House General Laws subcommittee on ABC and Gaming (on which I serve) voted on party lines not to move forward with Senator Adam Ebbin’s SB 391, legislation that would have, among other things, expedited the regulation and enforcement for the legal sale of cannabis for adult use in the Commonwealth.

I am very disappointed by this outcome. Similar legislation on the House side was also defeated earlier this session, leaving no remaining vehicle to send to a conference committee to continue working on this critical issue during these next two weeks remaining in session. I believe it was premature to abandon the mission of this legislation without giving it a fair hearing.

Indeed, the inception of this legislation was the culmination of diligent work from both sides of the aisle; as Chairman of this very subcommittee during the past two sessions, I also sit on the Joint Cannabis Oversight Commission, where my colleagues and I from both chambers met several times in the past year over the interim to hold hearings with stakeholders across the Commonwealth to develop a comprehensive legal-use framework. This bill was the culmination of our Commission’s legislative recommendations.

As Democratic Delegates David Bulova and Dawn Adams noted in this subcommittee meeting, a vote not to move forward with this legislation was a vote to allow the black market to proliferate for yet another year.

This legislation would have addressed three key goals: health concerns, public safety, and equity.

While July 1, 2021, marked the beginning of the legal possession of up to an ounce of cannabis for adult use in Virginia, there is currently no legal way to purchase cannabis within the Commonwealth. This raises an important question: if someone wants cannabis to possess and use legally, where do they buy it? The answer, unfortunately, is either from a street dealer (some of whom now operate online delivery services) or by bringing it into Virginia from another state or DC. These options are all illegal and can be unsafe.

An unregulated product endangers public health. Were pesticides, weed killers, or fungicides applied to the plant during cultivation? Were chemicals used during processing? Cannabis is a known “hyper-aggregator,” plants that are highly adept at absorbing substances from their environment like pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, heavy metals, and other toxins and contaminants. Indeed, cannabis and hemp are excellent agents to effectively clean up the soil after environmental disasters. However, in the context of plants intended for human consumption, these toxins and contaminants remain in the plant after harvest and are then transferred and can harm any person that consumes it. 

Sadly, in Northern Virginia, a cannabis user recently overdosed and died after using fentanyl-laced cannabis.

Right now our citizens do not have access to a safe and legal product. This legislation would have green-lit some industrial hemp processors and Virginia’s four pharmaceutical processors of medical cannabis — located in Manassas, Richmond, Norfolk, and Abington—to sell adult-use cannabis by Sept. 1, 2022 as a bridge to legal sales until the full market roll out starts the following year. Most significantly, medical cannabis, because it is highly regulated and tested, is a safe and reliable adult-use product. SB 391 would have also required these medical operators who participate in early sales to create incubator programs to establish small independent marijuana businesses that qualify as social equity applicants. Social equity candidates were narrowly defined in the legislation to focus on startup businesses operated by Virginians most affected by marijuana law enforcement.

By not moving forward with this measure, the Commonwealth has not just punted on cleaning up the illegal and dangerous black market but has passed up the opportunity to collect an estimated $180-$234 million in tax revenue that could support our communities with contributions to public schools, public health initiatives, and other investments. In a recent estimate, the illicit market in Virginia averages $1.8 billion per year and is growing.