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Recreational weed sales unlikely in 2023

Many weed plants
Scott Elmquist
VPM News
Trees housed at the gLeaf facility in Manchester, circa 2020, where medical cannabis oil is manufactured.

If this General Assembly doesn’t act, the issue will likely sit unresolved until at least 2024.

Advocates for legal recreational weed sales in Virginia are losing hope that lawmakers will take action on the issue this year. A GOP-controlled House of Delegates committee killed two bills from members of their caucus on the topic last month. That same committee would likely take a vote on the lone surviving legislation for retail sales, from Democratic state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D–Alexandria), which takes a far more expansive approach than the ones offered by Republicans.

A lack of action this year would mean lawmakers likely wouldn’t take up the issue again until the 2024 session, after November elections where all 140 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot.

There’s only one man who can change the legislative impasse, according to Virginia NORML executive director JM Pedini.

“That's really up to Governor Youngkin,” Pedini said in an interview. “He has been clear that legalizing the retail sale of cannabis to adults 21 and older is not a priority for him this session.”

Gov. Glenn Youngkin told reporters last month that his focus is on cracking down on the sale of intoxicating hemp products like Delta-8. And Republican Speaker of the House Todd Gilbert said last month that his caucus would take its cues from Youngkin, who ultimately must sign off on any retail sales bill. Gilbert argued that Democrats left a “mess” by legalizing the possession of marijuana in 2021 without finalizing legislation on retail sales.

“That, frankly, is not a place where everybody entirely feels comfortable with the status quo,” Gilbert told reporters. “And that doesn't mean that they want to run headlong into having retail marijuana stores on every corner in Virginia.”

Sixty percent of Virginians polled by Christopher Newport University last month said they support creating a legal recreational weed market. That includes a majority of self-identified Democrats and independents, and nearly 45% of Republicans.

Senate Democrats, along with Republican Sens. Siobhan Dunnavant (Henrico) and Jill Holtzman Vogel (Warrenton) passed Ebbin’s legislation Tuesday to create a legal cannabis market. It has yet to be docketed in the House, which must ultimately pass a bill for it to reach Youngkin’s desk.

Youngkin has yet to spell out what he would like to see in a retail cannabis market. His spokesperson, Macaulay Porter, didn’t directly respond to that question, referring back to the governor’s remarks relating to intoxicating hemp products.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of the equity-focused advocacy group Marijuana Justice, said it was possible Youngkin would avoid taking action entirely on cannabis sales during his tenure. But she said her group planned on campaigning on the issue in the upcoming legislative elections this November.

“We will make sure that cannabis inclusion is part of the election cycle this year as it was completely left out in the 2021 cycle,” she said, referring to the race between Youngkin and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Regardless of legislative action, it will remain legal for adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to four plants in their home. It is illegal to use cannabis in public, and plants must be hidden from street view.

This story is powered by the 2023 People's Agenda.

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