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Editorial: Nine questions for Virginia's coming marijuana debate

Editorial: Nine questions for Virginia's coming marijuana debate

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Virginia’s great marijuana debate is here and it may not be as interesting as we thought. Gov. Ralph Northam this week called for legalizing the plant, and the state’s most serious-minded body — the legislative watchdog agency known as the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission — prosaically laid out 75 things for legislators to think about if they do so.

There surely will be those who oppose legalization but conservative opposition may have hit the end of the line. In this month’s election, four more states voted to legalize weed, bringing the grand total to 15. More importantly, two of those were Montana and South Dakota, hardly liberal bastions. If states that are voting 57% and 62% for Donald Trump also are voting to legalize recreational marijuana, what signal does that send to legislators in conservative districts in Virginia? It likely says there’s little to no political consequence in voting for legalization — and perhaps some mild upside.

That means the real debate won’t be “yes” or “no,” it will be over the details accompanying a “yes” vote. Let’s look at some of those:

1. Will Virginia expunge prior marijuana convictions?

Should people still carry around the burden of court records for something that is no longer illegal? Or is it important they broke the law, even if we now conclude that law is outdated? If Virginia does decide to expunge convictions, will it expunge all of them, or just those dealing with simple possession? Or will it expunge convictions for sales, as well?

2. Will localities be able to block marijuana sales?

Think of this in the same way we have “wet” and “dry” counties for alcohol sales. Even in Colorado, which we think of as the most pot-happy state in the country, more than half the counties in the state still don’t allow sales. If Virginia went this route, would this be something local city councils or boards of supervisors could do on their own authority? Or would this require a local referendum to opt out? Given the results in Montana and South Dakota, marijuana advocates may want the referendum because voters may be more open-minded than their representatives are. The JLARC report says it surveyed localities and found “a majority of localities in Northern Virginia and Tidewater likely would be to participate in a commercial market, but localities in Southwest and Southern Virginia may be less interested in participating.”

3. What would be the rules for dispensaries?

The JLARC report says the law should make clear they’d need to comply with local zoning regulations, but how visible would they be? Think about all the rules that apply to places that sell alcohol. They can market “happy hour” but they can’t put up flashing lights that say “beer!”

Canada legalized marijuana in 2018. The rules in the province of Ontario sound like something Virginia might adopt. Dispensaries “cannot include any pricing information except for at the point of sale,” so no flashing signs advertising “reefer, $1.99!” Dispensaries “cannot use the depiction of a person, character, or animal (whether real or fiction),” so no Joe Cannabis just as the U.S. doesn’t allow “Joe Camel” for cigarettes. And dispensaries “cannot make cannabis look cool, glamorous, or exciting.”

Basically, they can sell it but they can’t advertise it very much. If you walk around Toronto, you can see stores with garish displays for home hydroponic kits — but it’s hard to find an actual marijuana dispensary unless you know where to look. Speaking of those home hydroponic kits...

4. Would Virginians be able to grow a small amount of marijuana for their personal consumption?

Some states do, some don’t. Oregon allows up to four plants. Alaska, California and Colorado allow up to six. Colorado specifies only three are allowed to flower at any one time, so growers need to stagger their planting. Michigan allows twelve plants. Massachusetts allows twelve if there are two people in the household. Washington is a legal weed state yet bans at-home marijuana gardening.

If Virginia allowed homegrown, then we’ll have a new form of gardening competition. It used to be could you produce a ripe tomato by the Fourth of July? Now it will be who will be the first in the neighborhood to grow some buds?

5. Would Virginia allow home delivery?

Yes, some states allow marijuana deliveries just like pizza deliveries. Would we? Would that be something allowed or disallowed at the local level? Colorado has one delivery business called Weed on Wheels. We’re not making that up.

6. How will the industry be structured?

Will the state allow vertical integration — where a single company could own everything from the pot farm to the processing plant to the dispensary? Or will it require horizontal integration — where all those are separate companies?

The argument for the former: Let the free market rule. The argument for the latter: Banning vertical integration provides more space for small businesses to compete.

7. How will the industry be regulated?

One option is to put marijuana regulation under the Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Another is to create an entirely new agency.

8. How will marijuana be grown?

Will Virginia allow open-field pot farming or must it all be grown in “growhouses”? The former raises security questions, but the latter means metro areas would surely elbow out rural areas for jobs and tax revenue.

Marijuana Business Daily — yes, there really is such a publication — now runs ads and stories about security agencies. Washington state no longer publishes the locations of those who hold licenses for outdoor growing.

Don’t expect to see vast expanses of marijuana fields, though. The largest marijuana grower in the country is Los Suenos Farms in Colorado — but it’s only 36 acres. Legal marijuana might create jobs — JLARC estimates 11,000 to 18,000 — but it also says “the majority would likely pay below Virginia’s median wage.” Somebody might get rich off legal marijuana in Virginia but it won’t be most of the people working in the future marijuana industry.

9. Where will the tax revenue go?

Depending on the tax rate (other states tax marijuana between 20% and 30% of retail value), JLARC says Virginia could bring in $31 million to $62 million the first year of marijuana sales — with that take rising to $154 million to $308 million by the fifth year.

There will be lots of idea on how to spend that money. That’s where the real debate may be.

The Roanoke Times

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