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Virginia policymakers ponder future of cannabis regulation

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A cannibis plant that is close to harvest grows in a grow room at the Greenleaf Medical Cannabis facility in Richmond.

Cannabis regulation met the stopping power of partisan politics during the 2022 Virginia General Assembly session, but lawmakers said more action is required to shape policy on the newly legalized plant.

Out of more than 25 cannabis-related bills filed by state lawmakers this year, only two passed the divided legislature and were signed into law by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, according to data from Virginia NORML, or the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Those two bills dealt with medical marijuana definitions.

The only other bill passed by the Republican-majority House and the Democratic-majority Senate was House Bill 591, carried by Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta. That bill, which originally sought to limit the shape of cannabis edibles, failed in the Senate during the legislature's reconvened session this week, after Democrats pushed back against amendments proposed by Youngkin, Hanger said.

“That particular bill will not move forward as SB 591,” Hanger said. “But, we've been working on a plan to take care of the substance of the bill after the session. Maybe in special session, or during the budget negotiations. At some point.”

Hanger intends to introduce more stringent regulations to a gray-area aspect of the consumable hemp industry. Products containing synthesized Delta-8 THC are abundantly available in gas stations, smoke shops and convenience stores, but adults don’t always realize the effects of what they’re buying, and children have ingested the unregulated, hemp-based edible products, Hanger said.

“Particularly right now, the Delta-8 products that are being injected into edible-type products — whether they be gummies or brownies or cookies — are causing a problem, and we need to address it,” Hanger said. “We really can't do nothing for public health and safety.”

But he said lawmakers have learned there is a fine line in trying to regulate the hemp and cannabis markets, given the beliefs and opinions about the plant. Legalizing hemp was intended for more industrial and practical uses, not for getting people high, Hanger said.

“I've heard lots of stories about people using hemp-derivative products that provide some relief from pains ... That's the experience some people have,” Hanger said. “There's opportunity for growth, but I would hope that we can develop other markets that that will help, rather than just concentrating on producing these drugs.”

Some of the needed regulations might be realized through the state budget, by providing funding for state authorities to provide enforcement, Hanger said. But there’s work still to be done on achieving budget agreement between parties.

“Just because people can make money doing it, doesn't mean that it's appropriate for it to operate in an unregulated market,” Hanger said. “The overriding concern for us should be properly controlling it, for the public's health and safety.”

Consumable hemp products causing concern for Hanger are but one aspect to tackle in the larger web of Virginia cannabis regulation. Lawmakers in Richmond this winter also balked on moving closer to establishing the framework for adult sales of recreational cannabis.

“We want to go back to rope, not dope,” Hanger said of SB 591. “Most likely, for the broader bill, we will be working with the governor's office to try to craft a new bill that could be potentially introduced during this special session.”

Future changes to cannabis policy will likely be attempted by introducing smaller and more tightly focused bills, said JM Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML. Since cannabis legalization was agreed upon by the legislature in 2020, lengthier bills on the subject have proved likely to falter in the legislature, they said.

“In 2023, what we ought to see are a number of skinny bills that address very narrow segments of code related to the licensing and regulation of adult-use cannabis,” Pedini said. “As opposed to one large omnibus bill, which for two sessions now, we have heard from the legislature is, ‘too big to read.’”

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