A Virginia Senate committee on Friday approved a bill to legalize marijuana in the Commonwealth, bringing the proposal closer to an indoor vote. Before passing the legislation to another panel, lawmakers rejected a proposal to remove home grow rights for cannabis.
The Senate Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services approved the bill by an 8 to 7 vote. Members also agreed to a series of amendments recommended by a newly formed subcommittee that focuses particularly on marijuana policy and who held two hearings on the bill earlier this week.
The legislation, which was unveiled by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) last week and is passed by key Senate and House leaders, would create a system for the sale and production of regulated and taxed marijuana, and allow adults 21 years of age and over to buy and own up to one ounce of cannabis and grow up to four plants for personal use, two of which may be ripe.
During Friday’s hearing, the panel discussed and approved the subcommittee’s proposals. This includes an amendment to create an independent agency to regulate the marijuana market, rather than letting the state’s existing liquor division manage it as would be the case in the governor’s original proposal. Due to the time it will take to set up this agency, the implementation schedule will be pushed back to 2024 instead of 2023, unless the General Assembly decides to speed up the process in the meantime.
Members also agreed to retain a home grow option for adult consumers, an important victory for supporters of the reform who argue it will provide a much needed access point, especially for those on low incomes.
There were two votes on a proposal to remove the personal cultivation provisions; the former was narrowly beaten 8-7 and the latter was more firmly rejected 10-5.
“NORML is happy that fresher heads have prevailed, rejecting an absurd motion to remove personal cultivation from the bill. Virginians have been very outspoken in supporting this priority, whether for medical or adult use, and lawmakers should heed the demands of their constituents, ”Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Without the ability to cultivate for personal use, many Virginians will find themselves without reasonable measure of access to safe cannabis products in their area.”
The group also added provisions on security awareness and best practices for the local culture.
“We commend the subcommittee for intelligently including language to promote safety awareness and best practices for personal cultivation, and to demand that reasonable steps be taken to protect plants from access by minors.” said Pedini, who is also director of national development for NORML.
Lawmakers also voted in favor of an amendment to revise the law so that local jurisdictions would have to refuse to allow cannabis companies to operate in their area, instead of accepting as it was originally drafted.
The rationale for this decision came from a recent policy change in Virginia that no longer allows “dry” counties and instead requires jurisdictions to refuse to allow liquor businesses by referendum.
The Committee of the Whole further agreed to a change to tighten the eligibility requirements in the social equity licensing policy. The original bill stipulated that a business must be 50 percent owned by disadvantaged people, but members approved an amendment raising that figure to 66 percent.
Members further agreed to proposals to strengthen public education campaigns on substance abuse and enable the integration of medical cannabis, adult-use marijuana and hemp businesses, rather than forcing them to be operated separately.
Senator Jeremey McPike (R), chair of the Expert Panel’s Marijuana Subcommittee, said in his closing remarks that he appreciated the way the members collaborated on this proposal, saying: “Even s ‘There were people who opposed the general idea, I think in a bipartisan way the members of the subcommittee really sought to try to improve the various components and parts in a very collaborative way.
“It will still go through several committees and several other opportunities to better refine this,” he said.
With this vote, the legislation is now moving towards the Judicial Committee, which, within its competence, will take the provisions relating to crimes and penalties. After that, the Finance Committee will consider things such as the proposed tax policy before the bill goes to the Senate.
Meanwhile, the House of Delegates is expected to adopt a complementary version of the legislation soon.
At least one senator has questioned the timeliness of this legislative process, complaining about the time he had to consider the long, recently revised bill ahead of Friday’s meeting.
How the hell am I supposed to read carefully a 515 page marijuana legalization bill tabled before me at 8:20 a.m. for a committee that met at 8:00 a.m. and wants me to vote on it. Really? Seriously really?
– Bryce Reeves (@ReevesVA) January 22, 2021
The provisions of the legislation as introduced were informed by two official state legalization studies that were recently conducted by a legislative committee and a separate task force made up of four cabinet secretaries from Virginia and other officials, both of whom discussed how to effectively implement legalization and submitted recommendations to the governor’s office late last year.
These studies were required under a bill to decriminalize marijuana that was approved last year.
Many of these recommendations have been incorporated into new legislation, including provisions to promote social fairness in the cannabis market. Notably, it would also distribute nearly half of the tax revenue the state collects from sales of marijuana towards funding pre-kindergarten education – a policy championed by First Lady Pamela Northam.
A new 21% tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, and local jurisdictions that allow marijuana businesses to operate could levy an additional 3% tax. Existing state sales taxes would also apply to purchases, for a total potential tax rate of 30%.
Revenues from the new state tax would be used to finance pre-kindergarten education (40%), a cannabis reinvestment fund (30%), treatment and drug addiction programs (25%) and public health (5%).
Advocates have generally welcomed the lawmaker’s swift decision to enact legalization, although some expressed frustration at the limited scope of its social equity provisions.
We strongly suggest that Virginia allocate 70% (not 30% as currently stated in the bill) of tax revenue to the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund.
The VA must make racial equity and racial justice a reality in the legalization of marijuana, not just an abstract principle. @thcjusticenow https://t.co/u9EuKqSaGW
– Virginia ACLU (@ACLUVA) January 22, 2021
Our legislative director Ashna Khanna on SB 1406 to legalize marijuana:
1. There is a loophole in eligibility for social equity licenses that would not favor ownership of those most affected by the ban.
2. Social equity financing and monitoring must be integrated into the new industry. pic.twitter.com/D8wxcNHoB6
– Virginia ACLU (@ACLUVA) January 22, 2021
This introduction of the bill came a month after the governor included provisions to lay the groundwork for the legalization of cannabis in a budget proposal that also calls for millions of dollars to support redactions. Northam had campaigned on simple decriminalization of possession, but publicly supported broader legalization of adult marijuana in November.
Northam said during his Commonwealth State Address last week that cannabis prohibition was deliberately enacted as a means to discriminate against people of color.
Separate legislation to legalize cannabis for adult use was tabled by Del. Steve Heretick (D) earlier this month. A complementary version of this bill, sponsored by Sen. Joe Morrisey (D), was also under consideration by the Senate committee on Friday, but this was formally incorporated into the governor’s proposal and it was added in as the main sponsor.
Meanwhile, legislation to prevent police from searching people or seizing property based solely on the smell of marijuana in Virginia is expected to come into force after lawmakers passed the governor’s recommended changes in October.
Also in the recently concluded special session, Northam signed another bill that will allow people issued citations for cannabis-related offenses under the state’s new decriminalization law to prepay their penalty. civil rather than going to court.
Read the amended marijuana legalization bill below:
Virginia marijuana legaliza… by Marijuana Moment
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.