Virginia Senator Is ‘Confident’ That Bill Legalizing Marijuana Sales Can Reach The Governor’s Desk

December 12, 2023 ·

A Virginia state senator says he’s “confident” that lawmakers can send a bill to tax and regulate marijuana sales to Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in the coming year. The question now is whether supporters can build enough bipartisan support to avoid a potential veto.

“I am confident, with Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate, that we can get a bill to the governor’s desk,” Sen. Adam Ebbin (D) said in a local TV news interview that aired over the weekend. “The challenge is going to be we want to make that bill bipartisan anyway. We want the governor to see the bipartisan support.”

In comments to ABC affiliate WSET, Ebbin, who has indicated his intent to file a marijuana sales bill in the new session, said he wasn’t able to discuss details of the forthcoming proposal “because we are just getting the final draft details together still with legislative services.”

“But I would say the focus of the bill,” he added, “is to provide legal sales to consenting adults and to clamp down on the black market and see that adults that chose to use cannabis get a product that is tested and safer than an unregulated black market product that you just don’t know what you are getting.”

Led by Democrats, Virginia lawmakers in 2021 legalized the use, possession and limited personal cultivation of marijuana by adults. But Republicans later blocked the required reenactment of a regulatory framework for retail sales to begin after they won control of the state House of Delegates and governor’s office in the 2021 elections. The Democratic-controlled Senate passed a legal sales regulation bill this year, but a GOP House majority killed the legislation.

Without a legal place for consumers to purchase cannabis, illegal, unlicensed storefronts have proliferated across the state.

Now, following November’s elections, Democrats will have majorities in both the House and Senate, which some advocates see as a path to finally allowing legal sales.

“What’s not yet legal is the regulated sale of tested products that are taxed and available to adults over 21 in the Commonwealth,” Ebbin said in the new interview. “It seems to me, and many Virginians, that if cannabis is legal that you should be able to legally purchase it.”

While medical patients can currently purchase products from dispensaries, he added, unregulated products on the illicit market are not only illegal but also “potentially dangerous, because the products they are buying aren’t tested.”

Ebbin said the GOP was largely to blame for the lack of a legal marijuana market, noting that “the House of Delegates had been the hang-up in terms of considering a well thought-out regulatory regime, largely because the Republican leadership.”

Then-Speaker of the House Del. Todd Gilbert (R), he said, wouldn’t allow a regulatory bill to advance “and would not put forward his own constructive plan.”

While Ebbin, who championed the state’s 2021 legalization law, is expected to introduce a bill in the coming session that would legalize commercial cannabis sales, it’s unclear how the proposal will fare. In addition to hesitancy from Republicans and uncertainty around Youngkin’s stance, there are also calls from Black and progressive advocates to build justice and equity reforms into the legislation.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, the executive director of Marijuana Justice, for example, has said that Democrats need to use their new power to pass a bill that centers social equity and has repairs for drug war harms built into the framework for legal sales.

“I think the Democrats have to put their power and momentum into this session in order to show their commitment to the community members and to guarantee the same engagement in future campaigns,” Wise told Marijuana Moment after last month’s elections.

At the same time, she acknowledged that “the community is going to have to push these legislators to have the political will not to make it simple.”

Others want to see Democrats take a more expedient approach to legal sales. JM Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment last month that the goal should be for the Democratic majority to pass a straightforward bill that Youngkin might let become law without his signature. If Youngkin vetoes the bill, Pedini told Marijuana Moment, Democrats won’t have the power to reverse it.

“Without the supermajority required to overturn a veto, any serious adult-use sales legislation must be both pragmatic and palatable in order to succeed,” Pedini said. “Such a measure should be easy to read, limited in scope and have strong bipartisan support.”

For now, Ebbin seems more inclined to follow the latter path. He emphasized to Marijuana Moment last month that “politics is the art of the possible.”

Wise at Marijuana Justice, however, doubts it’s actually possible for Democrats to thread the needle and dodge Youngkin’s veto, regardless of how much they compromise with Republicans.

“I believe that Gov. Youngkin will ensure that the entire nation knows that he has been able to veto an adult sales bill in Virginia,” she said. “He would love nothing more but to have that on his Republican resume.”

While Youngkin’s administration has signaled its hesitance to move forward on further adult-use marijuana reform, the governor’s own comments have been less clear.

“I don’t write legislation for them; they’ve got to sort this out,” Youngkin told local public media outlet VPM in February, when a separate sales bill from Ebbin was still in play. “I have said over and over again, I think that creating a market for cannabis is very complicated. There’s other states that have struggled, and they’ve got to go do the work. And I’ve looked at them for sending me bills.”

Ebbin, who saw the Republican-controlled House vote down a Senate-passed sales measure in the 2022 session, told Marijuana Moment in October that Youngkin “has been a challenge to deal with because he hasn’t been forthcoming with his views on what he’s willing to support.”

“I’m not sure what the governor will sign, since he’s been kind of cagey and not really supportive in his public statements,” he said at the time.

Asked whether it was possible that Democrats rally behind a bill that’s narrow and designed to be palatable to Youngkin only to have the governor veto it anyway, Ebbin told Marijuana Moment: “Yeah, I would say there would be a substantial chance of that.”

A Gallup poll released last month shows that a majority of Republicans—along with 70 percent of Americans overall—support legalizing marijuana.

Wise said last month that while Ebbin has been the most outspoken lawmaker about his intentions to introduce a sales bill, other newly elected officials could play important roles in what any legislation ultimately looks like. She pointed out that in addition to the election being a win for Democrats, it was also a strong showing for Black candidates.

“I believe that Black legislators and Black leadership is popping up in the Virginia legislature,” she said, “and I believe that will be the driving force to ensure we’ve kept our promise from 2021 to do this equitably.”

One thing advocates seem to agree on is that the victory for Democrats will chill any GOP-led efforts at rolling back legalization.

“Virginia’s progress on cannabis law reform will be protected,” according to Pedini at NORML. “In recent years, there were multiple efforts to recriminalize personal possession, to repeal the prohibition on stops and searches based solely on marijuana odor, and to enact per se DUID limits for THC. A Democratic majority ensures such bills never make it to the floor of either chamber.”

Under Ebbin’s bill this past legislative session, recreational cannabis sales would have begun on January 1, 2024. Sales would have taken place through existing medical cannabis dispensaries as well as at new businesses run by people who live in “historically economically disadvantaged communities.” Those operators would be eligible for training and support from current medical cannabis companies.

The legislation also included provisions for the resentencing of people currently incarcerated for cannabis convictions. Marijuana products would have been subject to a 21 percent excise tax, and localities could have imposed an additional three percent tax. Revenue would have supported reinvestment programs for historically economically disadvantaged communities, education for at-risk youth and addiction prevention services.

Days after the GOP-controlled House rejected that proposal, it also killed a bill that would have let medical cannabis businesses made certain state-level tax deductions. Republicans also scuttled separate legislation to create a psilocybin advisory board and reschedule the psychedelic.

Meanwhile in Virginia, several hemp businesses were recently hit with five-figure fines as part of an effort by the state to crack down on hemp cannabinoid products.

Two companies and a private citizen have also sued over the newly tightened rules for hemp products, which set the maximum amount of THC in hemp products at 0.3 percent concentration and 2 milligrams per package. The threshold made illegal hundreds of products already on store shelves. But in October, a judge denied their claim. (Full Story)

In category:Legalization
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