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Bill to allow cannabis sales beginning September 15 clears Virginia’s Senate

A marijuana plant grows at gLeaf's processing facility in Richmond's Southside. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

Adults in Virginia will be able to legally buy cannabis on Sept. 15 if a 451-page bill passed by the state Senate on Tuesday becomes law. Its path remains uncertain in the House of Delegates, where Republican-controlled committees have so far avoided taking up the issue.

A handful of companies would be able to begin selling in September under the bill from Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria): the three companies that currently control Virginia’s medical marijuana market as well as up to ten registered, industrial hemp processors. The medical companies would pay $6 million each for the right to sell early, while the hemp processors would pay $500,000 after a push by Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) to include them and lower the cost for entering.

Other retailers would have to wait nearly 15 months, until January of 2024, to begin sales. Ebbin says the transition period will help curb the black market. His bill requires medical marijuana companies to “incubate five qualified social equity applicant retailers for a period of six months or support and educate qualified social equity applicants that wish to participate in the cannabis market.”

“It will ensure the little guy – especially those most disadvantaged by the prohibition on cannabis – receive the seed funding and startup support necessary to slingshot small Virginia businesses into economic success,” Ebbin said.

Equity and free-market advocates have pushed for everyone to start at the same time, arguing the head start gives big players an unfair advantage. In a report published last week, the Minority Cannabis Business Association noted similar arrangements in other states have resulted in “a lack of diversity and the proliferation of the legacy market.”

Despite its complexity, the Senate spent less than 20 minutes debating Ebbin’s bill. Two Republicans voted in favor of the bill: Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) and Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier). One Democrat, Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), sat out the vote.

Under current law, medical marijuana “processors” in Virginia are allowed to open five additional retail sites aside from the place where they grow and process cannabis. Those stores would also be allowed to sell to all adult customers under Ebbin’s bill. The industrial hemp sites would be allowed to open up two additional retail sites aside from the place where they grow marijuana.

Republicans have accused Democrats of failing to resolve the issue of cannabis sales last year, when they legalized possession of marijuana. A spokesperson for Speaker of the House Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said last week that the focus of the GOP caucus had shifted to enforcing existing law rather than passing new cannabis legislation, a stance that could leave Virginia’s cannabis market in limbo.

Correction: A prior version of this story said Sen. Bryce Reeves voted for the cannabis retail legislation. Reeves' initial vote was an accident, according to an aide, and he voted "no" in a subsequent vote.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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