There was a glimmer of hope heading into the recently concluded General Assembly session that lawmakers would hammer out a compromise to begin retail marijuana sales in the commonwealth.
That did not happen and Virginia is worse off as a result.
In a landmark 2021 vote, the General Assembly made Virginia the first state in the South to allow adult residents to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana for personal use. In doing so, Virginia joined 17 states and the District of Columbia in allowing recreational consumption.
The law allows possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana and the at-home cultivation of four plants per household. It sets strict parameters about receiving pot as a “gift,” recognizing that in Washington, D.C., businesses sell items at inflated prices and claim to “gift” marijuana to its customers. And it established the basic framework for retail cannabis sales to begin in 2024 and created a Cannabis Control Authority to develop regulations and set the ground rules for enforcement.
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Democrats controlled both legislative chambers and the governor’s office at the time, but could not reach agreement on key aspects of the law. Negotiations collapsed over how to ensure equitable access to the marketplace and how to reinvest proceeds in minority communities hardest hit by the war on drugs.
As a result, some important decisions were delayed, leaving Virginia in a state of limbo over its approach to pot. Adults were allowed to possess marijuana, but could not buy it legally. They could grow their own plants, but couldn’t legally purchase seeds.
As during marijuana prohibition, the illicit market moved to fill the void and Virginians adapted. They organized “pop-up” events and markets where people purchased marijuana, though it was still illegal, and continued to frequent dealers to buy cannabis. The sale of “delta-8,” which is derived from hemp and therefore legal under marijuana laws, boomed.
Democrats thought they could revisit plans for recreational sales in a subsequent session, but lost control of the House and the Governor’s Mansion to Republicans in 2021.
Divided government meant further upheaval for marijuana laws.
Though some Republicans looked favorably on establishing a legal market and the revenue it will surely generate, they instead used a budget amendment in 2022 to tighten marijuana laws, recriminalizing possession of more than 4 ounces. But lawmakers also eliminated a requirement that patients register with the Virginia Board of Pharmacy to obtain a medical marijuana card and purchase pot at a dispensary.
That herky-jerky approach continued this year. The General Assembly approved laws strengthening regulation of hemp but rejected a bill that would have instructed the Cannabis Control Authority to begin setting the parameters for recreational sales.
That was a very low bar to clear. The Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission issued a report in 2020 that spelled out the key considerations for legalizing marijuana in the commonwealth, including those for establishing a legal market. And Virginia isn’t exactly blazing a new trail here; a market here would borrow best practices from other states, some of which have offered recreational sales for more than a decade.
Law enforcement is among the constituencies calling on legislators to get their act together. Ever-changing marijuana laws make their jobs more difficult and raiding “pop-up” shops — which only exist because of the General Assembly’s foot-dragging — takes energy and resources away from dealing with more serious criminal activity.
Virginia already knows what happens if it continues to beef up its cannabis laws without a legal marketplace, because it lived that experience for decades. It will mean more money spent to police and incarcerate Virginians and more lives ruined as a result.
The alternative is a thoughtfully regulated marketplace where adults can purchase what they want without fear of arrest or imprisonment, and more revenue pouring into state coffers for public education, community development and other pressing needs.
The choice shouldn’t be hard, but lawmakers continue to make it so.