Virginia Republicans push for marijuana law changes

RICHMOND, Va. – Newly empowered Republican lawmakers in Virginia who have opposed legalizing simple possession of marijuana say they don’t want to repeal the law, but they want to make significant changes.

Those changes could include delaying the start date for retail sales and removing a provision that would give licensing preference to people who have been convicted of marijuana-related crimes.

Republicans have introduced at least eight bills that seek changes to the Adult Possession Legalization Act 2021 up to an ounce of marijuana and laid the groundwork for retail sales to begin in 2024.

“The major overriding concern is that we need to put in place a regulatory structure for retail sales that does not encourage the black market,” said Garren Shipley, spokesman for House Speaker Todd Gilbert.

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The law was passed along strict party lines, with Democrats supporting legalization and Republicans voting against. At the time, Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate. Republicans took control of the House in the November election, winning a 52-48 majority over Democrats. Democrats still hold a slim 21-19 majority in the Senate.

A replenishment clause in the law requires lawmakers to vote again this year on a complex regulatory structure for retail sales, leaving open the possibility that Republicans could force changes to how the licensing process works, which will benefit from an advantage when applying for licenses. and how tax revenue from marijuana sales will be spent by the state.

Democrats who have backed legalization and advocates for those convicted of marijuana-related crimes fear the Republican-proposed changes could strip the law of “social equity” provisions designed to help people who have been harmed by old marijuana laws.

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“Many people have been over-penalized, over-policed ​​and over-suffered because of our misguided policies of the past, and it is time they stopped suffering and actually had a chance to make up for the lost ground of a how their lives have been impacted,” said Democratic Senator Adam Ebbin, one of the main sponsors of the 2021 legalization legislation.

Republican Del. Michael Webert sponsors a multi-part invoice it would make several significant changes, including redirecting the 30% of tax revenue from marijuana sales currently earmarked for a cannabis capital reinvestment fund to a fund that would be used to rebuild crumbling school buildings across the state.

“We’re trying to get the money to go where it’s needed most,” Webert said. “Being in a good school environment, providing a good, safe school building and an atmosphere in which a child can learn will be a great asset for that person’s future.”

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A separate bill introduced by Senator Tommy Norment would funnel 30% of marijuana sales revenue to the state’s general fund instead of the reinvestment fund, which was included in the 2021 law as a way to reinvest in communities disproportionately affected by strict drug laws, especially communities of color. Both proposals are drawing criticism from social justice advocates.

“I’m really struck by this attempt at equity funding and reinvestment as we’re committed to legalizing in a way that will provide some sort of benefit to people affected by the war on drugs,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice.

Webert’s bill would also eliminate a provision that calls for special consideration for social equity license applicants, including people who have been convicted of marijuana-related crimes or their immediate family members. It leaves in 2021 provisions that would give preference to people who live in economically disadvantaged areas and people who attended a historically black college or university in Virginia.

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“I believe that if you commit a crime and serve your sentence, you should have a seat at the table, but that shouldn’t put you in front of the line,” Webert said.

Webert’s bill would also reduce the overall tax rate on marijuana sales from 21% to 10%, a step he believes is necessary to encourage people to buy on the legal market rather than the black market.

Several Republican-sponsored bills propose advancing the start date for retail sales to 2023 instead of 2024 by selling through existing medical marijuana operators. Other GOP bills call for giving preference for marijuana grow facility licenses to farmers who have legally grown hemp in Virginia and to farmers in economically distressed areas of the state.

Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who took office Jan. 15, said while he won’t try to repeal personal possession, he has serious concerns about the elements of the bill that establish the commercial market.

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“It includes forced unionization, concerns law enforcement and establishes an unstable market that includes anti-competitive trade provisions that have put Virginia in check,” said Youngkin spokesman Macaulay Porter. “He stands ready to work in good faith to resolve these and other issues together with the General Assembly.”

JM Pedini, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for Marijuana Law Reform, said many advocates believe the legislature needs to take action this year to bring forward the date for retail sales.

“Continuing to cede control of the cannabis market to illicit, untaxed operators is unsustainable,” Pedini said.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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