Virginia Senate votes to speed up recreational cannabis sales, but farmers and social equity lobbyists are skeptical

On Tuesday, February 15, the Virginia Senate voted to shorten the timeline for retail cannabis sales.

Recreational cannabis has been officially legal in Virginia since July 1 — three months after the legislative approval of Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s revisions to Senate Bill 1406.

According to the Senate-approved plan, existing medical cannabis dispensaries would be allowed to begin serving members of the general public from September onwards.

State senators claim that the proposed plan will provide more farmers with an opportunity to get involved in the lucrative market. 

What’s more, the legislation would trigger an early sales phase designed to assist numerous large-scale industrial hemp processors in capitalizing on the industry.

This ensures consumers can purchase safe, regulated products legally,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria one of the senators who is backing the bill.

Virginia’s cannabis businesses will get a 16-month head start

Entrepreneurs who are involved in Virginia’s adult-use cannabis market will be offered the chance to participate in the nascent industry 16 months ahead of the original schedule. 

Although the legislation was approved by members of the upper chamber with a bipartisan, 23-16 vote, its overall passage remains uncertain.

Prior to the Senate’s push to shorten the timeline for retail cannabis sales in Virginia, the all-encompassing industry was expected to kick off in 2024.

Former Governor Ralph Northam’s (D) administration felt that this timeline would grant the state ample time to manage a new industry and establish a social equity program aimed at providing Black Virginians with equal opportunity to participate in the market.

Before the newly proposed legislation can advance through the House of Delegates, a decision must first be met by the GOP majority. However, lawmakers who focused on studying the issue last summer feel that the legalization of possession, rather than sales, has actually strengthened the black market.

Moreover, lawmakers are adamant that the $6 million required by the state for pharmaceutical processors and $500,000 for hemp processors to prematurely enter the market could provide adequate financial support for social equity operators. 

The legislation also requires early licensees to act as incubators for a minimum of five social equity licensees.

Legislation to speed up retail cannabis sales in Virginia raises concerns

Social equity program supporters are dubious about the Senate-approved plan to accelerate retail cannabis sales in Virginia. 

One of the most commonly-raised concerns centers around the fact that other programs in this avenue have been ill-fated.

Additionally, cannabis advocates worry that limited early sales will do nothing to hinder the illegal market.

“We cannot allow our communities most impacted by the war on drugs to take a backseat to the financial interests of medical operators and hemp processors,” said leader of the Marijuana Justice organization, Chelsea Higgs Wise. 

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has not yet chosen which 10 hemp processors will bag a license. 

However, the lucky few must have registered with the state prior to March 2021 and processed a minimum of 40,000 pounds of the cannabis sativa plant species.

According to the Department, licensing information is protected and is not subject to disclosure under state open record laws.

Moving forwards, the legislation will undergo review by the House of Delegates.