Retail marijuana bill heads to governor

Published 6:26 pm Tuesday, March 5, 2024

A bill that would create a legal retail marijuana market is headed to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk after passing the House of Delegates and State Senate despite opposition by area legislators.

State Sen. Aaron Rouse, D-Virginia Beach, in January proposed Senate Bill 448, which empowers the 2021-created Virginia Cannabis Control Authority to begin issuing marijuana licenses this July. Retail sales would begin Jan. 1, 2025.

The Senate, on Feb. 28, passed a House substitute of Rouse’s bill in a 21-18 vote on Feb. 28. Sen. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, whose district includes Surry County, voted in favor of the bill.

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Sen. Christie New Craig, R-Chesapeake, was the only Republican to join with Democrats in favor of the bill. Sen. Emily Jordan, R-Isle of Wight, joined 17 other Republicans in opposing it.

During crossover, when each General Assembly house gets to vote on the other’s approved bills, the House voted 51-47, also on Feb. 28.

Del. Joseph “Chris” Obenshain, R-Montgomery, was the only Republican to join Democrats in supporting the House substitute bill. 

Dels. Otto Wachsmann, R-Sussex, whose legislative district was redrawn in 2021 to include part of Isle of Wight County, and Kim Taylor, R-Petersburg, whose district includes Surry County, joined 45 other Republicans in opposing it.

Del. Nadarius Clark, D-Suffolk, who also represents part of Isle of Wight, was recorded as not voting, though the state’s legislative information system lists Clark as having “intended to vote yea.”

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. The House substitute version of Rouse’s bill would raise the legal limit for possession to 2½ ounces and cap criminal penalties for possession beyond the stated limit but less than 4 ounces at a $25 civil penalty. Possession of more than 4 ounces but less than a pound by someone not licensed to produce marijuana commercially would be prosecuted as a misdemeanor.

Possession of more than a pound would remain a felony punishable by one to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. The punishment for home cultivation of more than four marijuana plants would remain unchanged from the 2021 law.

Home cultivation of more than four but less than 10 marijuana plants would remain punishable by a civil penalty of $250 for a first offense and as a misdemeanor for subsequent offenses. Possession of more than 10 plants but less than 49 would remain a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 and up to a year in jail. Cultivation of more than 49 but less than 100 plants would remain a Class 6 felony and cultivation of more than 100 would remain punishable by one to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

The 2024 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.