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Lawmakers set for fight over equity as they shape marijuana market

Marijuana plants
Marijuana plants grown at gLeaf's facility in Richmond's Southside. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

Members of the Virginia House and Senate will likely enter closed-door negotiations to finalize a comprehensive plan to regulate marijuana sales. The bill includes provisions that try to address the criminal justice elements of legalization that advocates say are fundamental to good marijuana policy, but it’s their desire for social equity that will be a point of contention. 

Virginia legalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana last year, but lawmakers stopped short of building a regulatory framework for retail sales and addressing past criminal convictions, resentencing and whether those who have served time for weed offenses can participate in legal sales. 

This year, a politically divided legislature needs to come to some agreement on the proposal in order to get the marketplace up and running by the 2024 launch date.

This week, the Senate -- which is led by Democrats -- approved a measure that sets up that marketplace. It’s now in the hands of the GOP-controlled House of Delegates, which has yet to put it on the docket.

 The House hasn’t taken up any marijuana bills this session, however, Republican leadership have been clear that a licensing framework needs to be in place this year to avoid the dreaded status quo - which is the proliferation of an unregulated, informal market.

As it stands, the Senate-approved legislation would seal records for felony marijuana convictions, meaning they can still be opened by a court order. It also bans non-criminal justice agencies from sharing misdemeanor marijuana records and provides a path for people who are serving time to be resentenced.

It’s still illegal to possess more than an ounce of marijuana, and it’s a felony to have a pound or more. This new legislation would also create a new criminal penalty -  possession of between four ounces and a pound - changing it from a civil fine to a misdemeanor. Advocates are vehemently opposed to that change, largely because of prohibition’s historic impact on people of color.

Kalia Harris with Virginia Student Power Network spoke about this during a press conference earlier this week.

“Black and brown youth, aged 18-25, are the most impacted by marijuana enforcement in Virginia,” she said. “We cannot and we must not legislate new crimes.”

The Senate bill also includes language that ensures people in communities that have been overpoliced and disproportionately criminalized have early access to the legal cannabis market, what advocates refer to as social equity licenses. They also demand that those communities benefit from the revenue the industry brings to the state. 

But many Republicans and Democrats disagree on the definition of social equity.

Some Republicans, like Del. Michael Webert (R-Fauquier), want to shift the equity lens away from communities that have been overpoliced and disproportionately criminalized onto areas of the state that are economically distressed.

“Specific parts of Southwest, Hampton Roads, Richmond and some other areas,” Webert said. “You don’t have to go looking in census data to find who has been targeted the most for policing, et cetera, because it depends on the definition of targeting and policing.”

It has been shown, however, that communities of color  have been targeted for marijuana enforcement, despite using at the same rate as white people.

Webert says they also want to look toward existing programs that target diverse entrepreneurs, like the state’s Small, Women-owned, and Minority-owned Business (SWaM) certification program.

If both sides don’t find common ground this year, medical marijuana, simple possession and home cultivation will still be legal. But many Virginians will remain incarcerated and bound to their criminal records. And, advocates fear communities targeted for enforcement will continue to lose out on the benefits of an industry that Virginia’s watchdog agency said could net up to $300 million per year in tax revenue.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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