Retail marijuana bill advances despite abstentions by area legislators

Published 3:26 pm Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Area legislators are on the fence about supporting a bill that would create a legal retail marijuana market.

State Sen. Emily Jordan, R-Isle of Wight, joined Democrats in a 10-5 Jan. 26 vote by the Senate’s Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee to advance a bill sponsored by Sen. Aaron Rouse, D-Virginia Beach, to empower the 2021-created Virginia Cannabis Control Authority to begin issuing marijuana licenses this July. Retail sales would begin Jan. 1, 2025.

Jordan and Sen. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, however, abstained from a Jan. 31 vote when the bill reached the Courts of Justice Committee.

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Rouse’s Senate Bill 448 passed Courts of Justice in a party-line 7-5 vote despite Jordan’s and Aird’s abstentions. Sens. Scott Surrovell, Creigh Deeds, Jennifer Boysko, Lamont Bagby, Russet Perry and Saddam Azlan Salim, all Democrats, supported the bill while Sens. Mark Obenshain, Ryan McDougle, Richard Stewart, William Stanley and Mark Peake, all Republicans, opposed it.

Jordan was one of two Republicans – Sen. Christie Craig, R-Chesapeake, was the other – to advance the bill from Rehab and Social Services. Sen. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge, also abstained from the Courts of Justice vote. 

“SB 448 is a bill that defines the type of products, tiers and marketability to consumers,” Jordan said. “I voted in Rehabilitation and Social Services to refer the bill to Courts for review of the criminal provisions of the legislation.”

Jordan said she abstained from the Courts of Justice vote”in hopes to signal a more well thought out end product should it pass.”

The bill still has to go through Finance on which I do not serve,” Jordan said. “I did not prefer the bill in the iteration in which we reviewed it, since the courts only weighed in on the criminal provision.”

Aird, whose Senate district includes Surry County, campaigned in favor of moving forward with a retail marijuana market when running for office last fall.

“The legalization of marijuana without a deliberately structured, retail market has left Virginia’s system confusing, contradictory and has led adult consumers to turn to the less safe, unregulated black market,” Aird stated during her campaign. “It has also left individuals disproportionately targeted by the justice system relative to marijuana drug laws in limbo.”

Aird did not immediately respond to The Smithfield Times’ request for comments.

In 2021, the General Assembly voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults age 21 and up, and allow the growing of up to four marijuana plants in their homes for personal use. The 2021 law created the Cannabis Control Authority to oversee retail sales, but in 2022, when Republicans took control of the House of Delegates and Governor’s Office, the General Assembly did not reenact the legislation to create a retail market.

In 2023, Democrats regained control of the House. Rouse’s bill would cap criminal penalties for possession of marijuana by someone under age 21 at a $25 civil penalty and court-ordered substance abuse treatment. Purchasing marijuana for someone under 21 would be a Class 1 misdemeanor under Rouse’s bill, punishable by a $2,500 fine and/or up to a year in jail.

Rouse’s bill would further define as a Class 1 misdemeanor the nonpayment of the 12% state tax on retail marijuana products, half of which would be distributed to the city or county in which the sale occurred.

Rouse’s bill would reenact a provision of the 2021 legalization law that allows local governing bodies, by resolution, to petition the Circuit Court for a voter referendum to prohibit retail marijuana sales. The ballot question would be worded, “Shall the operation of retail marijuana stores be prohibited in ____ (name of county, city, or town)?” If a majority of voters vote “no,” retail marijuana stores would be allowed starting Jan. 1, 2025, or 60 days after the referendum vote is certified.

Rouse’s bill is awaiting a vote by the Senate’s Finance and Appropriations Committee. A nearly identical bill sponsored by Del. Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, is pending in the House of Delegates. If and when either bill passes its respective chamber, it will advance to the other during “crossover” this month when the House of Delegates and Senate consider each others bills. If approved by both chambers, it will head to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk for his signature, though Youngkin was quoted in The Daily Progress, a Charlottesville newspaper, as telling reporters, “I just don’t have a lot of interest in passing forward with marijuana legislation.”