Republicans who won statewide office this month, and who will return to the majority in the House of Delegates come January, will likely put the brakes on some of the work done by Democrats while that party held sway in Richmond of late.
However, on one issue at least — marijuana legalization — the GOP might hit the gas instead.
Reporting last week by the Virginia Mercury suggests that incoming officials may accelerate the creation of a legal marketplace rather than slow it down. As it stands, retail sales of marijuana aren’t expected in Virginia until 2024.
Earlier this year, the General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam agreed to allow legal possession of up to one ounce as of July 1. Virginians can now possess and use the drug recreationally and can grow up to four plants per household for personal consumption.
Buying pot or purchasing marijuana seeds to grow at home is still illegal. That puts Virginians in a weird state of limbo: They can use the drug, but not legally purchase it. They can grow marijuana plants but cannot buy the seeds.
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The one exception: the medical marijuana program approved in 2017 and expanded in 2018, thanks to a bill sponsored by Republican Del. Ben Cline of Lexington (now a member of the U.S. House). It passed unanimously in a General Assembly under GOP control.
Other key Republicans have been integral to setting the table for substantial reform to take place. As early as 2016, Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. “Tommy” Norment Jr. of James City County voiced his support for decriminalization. That was a clear and certain sign things were changing.
So there is precedent for Virginia Republicans backing marijuana reform. And it appears that marijuana might be an area where Republicans (in top statewide jobs and the House majority) can work with Democrats (who hold a majority in the Senate) to shorten the timeline on legalization.
Indeed, it’s imperative that they do.
The current law is a problem for more than recreational users. It’s a problem for the justice system as well, and it would be better for the state to go all-in on recreational sales as quickly as possible rather than continue to dwell half-in, half-out.
“You almost kind of have to [accelerate the timeline],” said Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, told the Mercury. “I guess we’re kind of half pregnant.”
Not that it’s easy to set up a fair, equitable and regulated legal marketplace for a drug that’s still listed by the federal government as a Schedule 1 narcotic. A 2020 report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission outlined the hoops lawmakers must jump through, including the establishment of parameters for possession and use; setting guidelines for home cultivation; and vesting authority for regulation in a government agency, the Cannabis Control Authority, that must be built from the ground.
Virginia will need to decide how to permit and monitor cultivation, sales and testing, including how to do so in a way that allows communities most harmed by the drug war to benefit from legalization. That means an equity component, including assurances that local minority cannabis entrepreneurs won’t be run down by industrial producers and massive cannabis corporations operating in other legalization states.
It’s also worth noting that the legislation that legalized use and possession this year bogged down, not over whether to proceed, but how to address important subjects such as minority opportunity, and criminal justice questions such as expungement of past convictions and how to handle those still incarcerated for marijuana offenses.
One hopes that members of both parties recognize the value of expediting the creation of a legal market but also resolving these outstanding issues as Virginia looks to the future. Extricating Virginia from this legal limbo must be a legislative priority.
Marijuana legalization remains a golden opportunity for Virginia and, if everyone comes to Richmond this year determined to see it through, the commonwealth will surely benefit.
— The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board