At the inaugural meeting of Virginia’s Joint Commission on Cannabis Oversight, lawmakers called for an earlier start to licensed sales of recreational marijuana. According to legislation passed in April, personal possession of cannabis became legal on July 1, but licensed sales of recreational marijuana don’t begin until 2024. That gap has some lawmakers concerned that they will confuse consumers and create a window of opportunity for illegal sales.
“People know it’s legal, and they probably think they can buy it legally. And it’s going to become more and more difficult to explain that to the general public,” said Democratic Delegate Paul Krizek. “We don’t want to facilitate an illegal market out there.”
The delay was designed to give regulators time to draft rules and issue licenses to adult-use cannabis businesses.
“We have legalized the use of marijuana, but we have not legalized the actual purchase of marijuana,” said Krizek. “What we need to do is get the safe sales of marijuana out there as soon as possible.”
One solution, offered by several lawmakers, is to allow the state’s existing medical marijuana dispensaries to sell recreational cannabis to all adults 21 and older. Current regulations allow medical marijuana dispensaries to serve only those patients who have registered with the state pharmacy board.
“Every other state that has legalized cannabis has leveraged their existing medical market to not just increase access but generate the tax revenue and funds for social equity priorities,” said Ngiste Abebe, the vice president of public policy at medical marijuana licensee Columbia Care.
Urging caution, other state legislators are concerned fast-tracking licensing could jeopardize Virginia’s social equity program before it gets started.
“A minority or woman is brought in, and a company says, ‘We’ll incubate you. You’re a partner. Wink.’ Then they get access to a social equity license,” House Majority Leader Charniele Herring said. “If we go down that route, let’s really be careful, because we do not want to make the mistakes of the past, where it’s not in the spirit of what was intended.”
The proposal would require medical marijuana dispensaries that wish to serve adult-use customers to serve as a business incubator for five applicants that qualify for the state’s upcoming cannabis social equity program, which is designed to help ensure that members of communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs have a path to business ownership in the legal market.
Chair of the joint oversight commission, Senator Adam Ebbin believes the matter is “an important issue to flag” for the next legislative session. “It’s worthy of this subcommittee to consider if it can be done while still ensuring robust participation by social equity applicants,” he said.