Virginia has officially legalized the recreational use of marijuana for adults over 21, doing away with penalties for possession below one ounce, decriminalizing possession up to a pound and allowing for sharing by adults.
Nearly everything else related to legalization is up for debate. Much of the work will be left to the state’s bureaucrats under a new agency and three government boards that will be staffed up in the coming weeks.
In January, Virginia lawmakers will revisit a series of provisions related to legalization that a weary and wary legislature kicked down the road.
Lawmakers will decide how to structure the incoming legal market. Republicans broadly opposed the marijuana legislation, and if they regain control of the House in November, they could topple Democrats’ legalization plans.
Under a tentative agreement hatched this year, which will require more debate and another vote, Democratic lawmakers agreed to curtail “vertical integration” — the ability for one company to hold licenses for every part of the market, from seed to sale. There are two exceptions: The bill would allow medical marijuana processors to hold all five licenses with a $1 million contribution to the Virginia Cannabis Equity Business Loan Fund and certain restrictions.
Micro-businesses would also be allowed to vertically integrate.
The legislation also includes the creation of a licensing program that would ensure access for people affected by the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana laws. Under the tentative agreement, people with a conviction for a marijuana-related crime and graduates of Virginia historically Black colleges and universities could qualify for a social equity license, as long as they have lived in Virginia for 12 months.
There is significant debate among lawmakers and advocates on who should or shouldn’t qualify for these licenses.
Jenn Michelle Pedini, the executive director of Virginia NORML, a marijuana legalization advocacy group, said Virginians who consume marijuana still face losing their jobs, housing or parental rights. She said people also face challenges accessing educational programs and health care for marijuana use.
“It’s reasonable to assume that some people will feel less prohibited given the passage of legalization, however, there are a number of other laws that need to change in order to protect the rights of responsible consumers — adult use or medical,” Pedini said.
Lawmakers will also weigh in on a provision that would allow Virginians incarcerated on marijuana charges to request that a judge reconsider their sentences.
The Virginia Cannabis Control Authority will be an independent agency governing the new industry. Gov. Ralph Northam will appoint its chief executive officer in the coming days.
The regulatory process will also be driven by the three boards.
In the coming days Northam also will make public his appointments to a five-person Board of Directors of the Cannabis Control Authority, which must be confirmed by the legislature.
As the launch of the legal market nears, it will create the regulations for the legal market. For manufacturers, as an example, regulators will have to issue guidance on packaging and labels for marijuana products. They’ll also issue standards for cultivation, sanitation and testing of marijuana production and the product.
The state will also create the Cannabis Public Health Advisory Council, a 21-member board which will issue binding opinions on regulations that have to do with public health.
The state will also create a 20-member Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board. It will be responsible for doling out the 30% in marijuana revenues that the state decided to direct to “persons, families, and communities historically and disproportionately targeted and affected by drug enforcement,” according to the law.
Appointments to the latter two boards will be made by the governor’s office and the legislature.
Much of the rollout of the state’s marijuana legalization law will happen under Virginia’s next governor.
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee, has expressed broad support for legalization.
“Terry has been clear that marijuana legalization is the smart and right thing for Virginia to do. As governor, he’ll invest this important new revenue stream into strengthening Virginia’s economy,” said Renzo Olivari, a campaign spokesperson.
Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee and former private equity executive, has been critical of the law but doesn’t intend to seek to repeal it, a campaign spokesperson said.
“Youngkin will not seek to repeal it; his focus will be on building a rip-roaring economy with more jobs and better wages, restoring excellence in education, and reestablishing Virginia’s commitment to public safety,” the campaign said. “With legalization, real emphasis must be placed on ensuring minors do not use this drug or have access to it.”