Bill to allow marijuana sales in peril after breakdown on Virginia arena deal

Cannabis plant (via Rick Proctor on Unsplash)

Hopes that Gov. Glenn Youngkin might sign a bill legalizing retail sales of marijuana in Virginia faded fast this week as Democrats blocked one of the governor’s top priorities: the plan to bring a professional sports arena to Northern Virginia.

As recently as Wednesday, according to multiple Capitol sources, the cannabis bill was being raised in closed-door budget talks with the governor as one of several Democratic priorities that could conceivably have been part of a package deal with the arena.

But the prospects of a grand policy bargain appeared to collapse Thursday as Democrats revealed a budget proposal without Youngkin’s arena plan, prompting the governor to say he was less inclined to look favorably on Democratic priorities. In a news conference (link added by FFXnow) on the Capitol steps, Youngkin said the arena deal Senate Democrats rejected involved up to 30,000 jobs and $12 billion in economic impact.

“And, bluntly, you want to talk about putting a cannabis shop on every corner?” Youngkin said. “I don’t quite get it.”

The governor said several other topics had been part of an “overall discussion” with Democrats. However, he suggested the rejection of an economic development project that could’ve drawn bipartisan support isn’t going to make him more likely to approve bills that passed mostly along party lines.

“I think this really sets us meaningfully back,” Youngkin said.

Del. Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, a key sponsor of the marijuana proposal, said hopes for the bill were not high.

“As those great philosophers Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin would say, ‘It’s up in smoke,’” Krizek said.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, pointed to Youngkin’s comments on cannabis as evidence that it’s the governor who’s refusing to budge on issues that have popular support.

“He just basically flat out said one of our biggest priorities he’s not willing to consider,” Surovell said. “This governor wants to set the terms of every single negotiation as if he’s the sole arbiter of what’s reasonable in a bipartisan environment. That’s just not how it works. … If he wants something, he’s got to give us something.”

Youngkin can’t veto the marijuana bill immediately, because it technically hasn’t been sent to him yet. After this week’s developments, it may only be a matter of time. Youngkin said again Thursday that he doesn’t have “any interest” in greenlighting a retail marijuana market during his four-year term.

He has just under two years remaining, and if Democrats retake the Executive Mansion in 2025, the bill sent to Youngkin this year could potentially be the starting point for future legislative efforts.

Proponents of the bill say it’s the most serious effort yet to build a fair retail market that gives big cannabis companies, small entrepreneurs, farmers and communities most impacted by the war on drugs a chance at new business opportunities.

Though many Virginia conservatives still balk at anything that could be construed as promoting drug use, the bill going to the governor mostly builds on policy decisions that have already been made to allow medical marijuana, decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot and let weed enthusiasts grow up to four plants at home. All those developments have already added up to a much less punitive approach to cannabis, but the state still has no way for people to legally purchase marijuana without a medical reason.

“I think this bill on its merits can stand and can get very broad support once people fully understand what’s in it,” said Greg Habeeb, a former Republican delegate who now lobbies for the Virginia Cannabis Association. “It’s about licensing sellers. It’s about testing products. It’s about taxing sales.”

The proposal sets May 1, 2025, as the start date for recreational marijuana sales, but the state would start accepting dispensary applications this September.

The new retail market would be overseen by the Cannabis Control Authority, a relatively new agency that currently regulates Virginia’s medical marijuana program and runs a variety of public awareness campaigns on marijuana and its effects.

When dealing with cannabis legalization in the past, Democrats and progressive activists have wrestled with how to create a new industry while making amends to Black communities that were disproportionately impacted by criminalization and the war on drugs. The approved bill scrubs mentions of diversity, equity and inclusion, language Youngkin has tried to eliminate elsewhere in state government. It instead focuses on race-neutral “micro business” provisions designed to help “historically economically disadvantaged communities” see financial benefits from marijuana legalization.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of the nonprofit group Marijuana Justice, said the pending bill is “the best proposal that we’ve had since the legalization conversation started in 2021.”

“We are pretty excited about the final product, said Higgs Wise, whose group has worked to ensure marijuana legalization includes provisions aimed at rectifying past harms.

To that end, the General Assembly passed separate legislation that would give nearly 800 people incarcerated for marijuana-related felonies an opportunity to have their sentences reduced in light of the state’s move toward legalization. More than 1,200 people on probation or parole for marijuana offenses would also have a chance to reduce the length of their post-release supervision, according to state officials’ analysis of the bill’s impact.

Keeping those bills separate could theoretically make it easier for Youngkin to approve the retail sales bill without having to compromise on his tough-on-crime message that calls for stiffer criminal penalties for dealers of harder drugs.

Another bill sent to Youngkin would specify that simply possessing or consuming legal marijuana products no longer counts as abuse or neglect for the purposes of child custody and visitation.

The Senate version of that bill is sponsored by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, Youngkin’s chief antagonist on the arena proposal. The House version was sent to the governor on a seven-day timeline, meaning he has until midnight Friday to act on it.

Photo via Rick Proctor on Unsplash. This article was reported and written by the Virginia Mercury, and has been reprinted under a Creative Commons license.

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