First look: Will weed stay legal in Virginia?

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — After retaking the House of Delegates and Governor’s Mansion during last year’s election, prefiled bills show Republicans are seeking to reverse many policies enacted by Democrats over the past few years, from the expansion of absentee voting to trans-inclusive policies in schools.

One of the most prominent legislative victories for Democrats was the legalization of marijuana, but the bill came with some key caveats that will be important over the next few years.

First, the bill only immediately legalized personal possession, so while individuals can posses up to one ounce of marijuana without facing any penalty (or grow up to four plants per household) amounts above that still carry a criminal penalty.

Second, Democrats included a “reenactment clause” which requires another vote sometime during 2022 to finalize the framework for commercial sales. Right now, commercial sales are slated to begin in 2024, but that’s only if Republicans – who now control the House of Delegates and Governor’s Mansion – agree to help pass the regulatory framework.

Is a repeal on the way?

So is a repeal on the docket for this General Assembly session?

No — in fact, Republicans have advanced several pieces of legislation tacitly acknowledging that legal weed is probably here to stay. Now, the question is what, exactly, legalization will look like.

HB 950 and SB 391 — patroned by Republican Del. Michael Webbert and Democratic state Sen. Adam Ebbin, respectively — provide divergent visions of how legalized commercial sales should take place.

The Senate version would take effect on Jan. 1, 2023, while the House version would see sales begin a year later, on Jan. 1 2024. The House version also specifies regulations on the related hemp industry, including hemp for recreational use, while the Senate version includes provisions related to the expungement of past marijuana convictions.

But the key takeaway is that both Republicans and Democrats are advancing bills that would legalize commercial sale — all that remains is to hammer out the details and the timeline.

Criminal Justice

One of the important aspects of the debate over marijuana policy has been what rules will be applied to law enforcement and those previously incarcerated for marijuana offenses.

HB 280, patroned by Republican Del. Carrie Coyner, would grant anyone convicted of a marijuana offense in Virginia a hearing to reduce or vacate their sentence, potentially granting them release from prison.

The release of those incarcerated under previous drug laws — and the expungement of those convictions, as included in SB 391 — have been a major priority of marijuana justice advocates.

HB 79, patroned by Republican Del. Ronnie Campbell, would reverse a law passed last year restricting the reasons for which a police officer can pull over a driver. Some of those reasons include loud exhaust systems, objects hanging from mirrors and lack of a license plate light.

But the key policy change is a provision that would allow police officers to pull people over, stop them on the street or initiate a search because of the odor of marijuana. Such preemptive stops were outlawed by Democrats last year as part of the legalization of weed.

What to do about Equity

In the House and the Senate, two Republican legislators are putting forward competing visions for the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund established by Democrats during last year’s legalization effort. The fund will draw 30 percent of state revenues from marijuana sales when commercial sale commences, and distribute them as grants for those living in areas disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.

SB 107, patroned by Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, would effectively dissolve the fund by cutting off its revenue. The funds would then be redirected to the General Fund, to be distributed during the normal budget process.

HB 176 comes from the opposite side of the capitol and is being patroned by Republican Del. Daniel W. Marshall. While Norment’s bill is designed to effectively end the equity fund, Marshall’s would expand its scope by adding those living in economically distressed localities to the eligibility criteria.

Norment and Marshall are both long-serving Republican legislators, but while Norment is in Senate party leadership, Marshall does not hold a similar position in the House. Nevertheless, Norment’s proposal may face strong opposition in the Democrat-controlled Senate, while Marshall may find more allies among Democrats willing to adjust the equity fund rather than eliminating it entirely.

Limiting Sales

Republicans have also filed bills that would place restrictions on where and how marijuana can be sold, once commercial sales begin.

HB 43, patroned by Republican Del. Lee Ware, would require that a referendum be held before a marijuana dispensary can be opened in a locality. This would effectively give local residents control over whether commercial licenses are granted in their area, but it would not change the legal status of marijuana itself in the localities.

Ware is also patron of HB 72, which would ban marijuana farms from selling plants or seeds to customers. The legislation, like all legislation relating to commercial sales, would only go into effect if the General Assembly acts to approve a framework for commercial sales.

HB 984 would establish penalties for selling cannabis to an underage person if that person then drives intoxicated and injures someone. This would mark a major difference between marijuana and alcohol laws in Virginia, since the same liability isn’t applied to those who provide alcohol to minors.

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