Up in Smoke

Up in Smoke

Black market to remain underground for now as lawmakers reject licensing scheme.

Virginia's black market for marijuana will remain underground for now. Earlier this week, a House subcommittee rejected a bill introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30) that would have created a way for the newly created Cannabis Control Authority to issue licenses to sell recreational weed.

"I'm very disappointed," said Ebbin shortly after the vote. "Years of work on establishing a regulated adult use market for cannabis has been dispatched by the House Republican majority without giving it thoughtful consideration."

Republicans started the session saying that ending the stranglehold on the black market was a priority. But the effort stalled when the GOP caucus was divided on the issue. Several House Republicans offered their version of what a marketplace could look like, but none of those bills passed. Now the delay will offer all of the many businesses wanting to do business in Virginia an opportunity to make campaign contributions in an election cycle where all 140 members of the General Assembly will be on the ballot.

“We have folks who are still trying to grapple with the differences between CBD, the terms hemp, cannabis, delta 8, delta 9," said Del. Emily Brewer (R-64), chairwoman of the subcommittee that killed the bill. "There’s a lot of confusion. So I really truly think for us to get to a regulated market, all the stakeholders need to get together.”

Ebbin says the stakeholders are together, and he dismisses the idea that lawmakers are confused about a topic they've been debating for years.

"It's hard to read their minds, but I'd say they're unprepared to govern in this area and afraid of their base," said Ebbin. "I think they're afraid of cannabis, which the General Assembly has already made a public policy decision to legalize. And they didn't do their homework."

SOCIAL EQUITY LICENSES became one of the major flashpoints during the debate as Republicans pushed back on the idea that people convicted of misdemeanor crimes should get first dibs on getting a license to sell marijuana. Ebbin's bill also had preferential licenses for family members of people convicted of marijuana misdemeanors. Republicans campaigned against social equity licenses last year during the campaign, and now they feel they have a mandate to reject them.

"I’m opposed to taxpayer-funded money going to criminals to start businesses because they broke the law,” said Del. Glenn Davis (R-84) on the campaign trail last year.

Republicans were also opposed to the idea that jurisdictions have been disproportionately policed. The Ebbin bill created a process for the Cannabis Control Authority to use Census data to determine which jurisdictions experienced disproportionate arrests and convictions during the failed war on drugs. Del. Michael Webert (R-18) introduced a bill that would have ditched this approach.

"You can have some wealthy areas that have been targeted by a cocaine bust," said Webert.

HELPING ECONOMICALLY disadvantaged areas emerged as a rare point of agreement during the debate. Ebbin's bill included language directing the board of directors of the Cannabis Control Authority to use Census tract data to identify areas that are "economically distressed." Republicans were also hoping to add preferential licenses for women- and minority-owned businesses.

"I don't think Republicans necessarily hate the idea of equity licenses," said Del. Paul Krizek (D-44)., "Maybe they hate the word equity. I mean it seems like it's a verboten word these days. But they want to do the same thing that we want to do, and that's right the wrongs of the past.”