Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

As lawmakers ready for weed debate, report suggests medical market ‘struggling’

Shaban Athuman
VPM News
At right, Jeremy Preiss, the acting head of the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority, listens to a presentation on Monday, November 27, 2023 at the Patrick Henry Building in Richmond, Virginia.

Democrats to control the legislature, but Youngkin will need to sign off on legislation.

Cannabis will be on lawmakers’ agenda in the upcoming legislative session, as they navigate issues ranging from equity and consumer safety to the regulation of adult-use and medical marijuana markets.

While a legal and regulated market for medical marijuana already is in place in Virginia, adult-use sales remain illegal.

Legislators convene in Richmond in January, and though Democrats will control both the House and Senate, anything they pass will have to be signed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Democratic Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) was among the sponsors of a 2021 bill that legalized marijuana for non-medical uses.

“We're ready [and] willing to cooperate, and recognize that there are some approaches that might not be as palatable to the governor, and happy to send something to his desk that is different than last year's bill,” he said.

However, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly at the time did not set up a regulated market for the sale of marijuana, planning to later return to the issue. But in fall 2021, Democrats lost the governor’s mansion and the House of Delegates to Republicans.

The Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services this summer said that Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin “is not interested” in moving toward a regulated adult-use market.

In 2023, bills sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans that would have established a regulated adult-use market didn’t pass the assembly. Most were killed in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. A separate Republican spending proposal also would have defunded the Cannabis Control Authority, which is responsible for regulating Virginia’s cannabis market.

“Democrats and Republicans have an opportunity this next session to deliver to voters what they want: That's access to retail sales for adult-use cannabis,” said JM Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, which advocates for reforming marijuana laws.

Approaches to adult-use weed regulation could allow medical marijuana dispensaries to sell pot for adult-use or simply be a legalization framework.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of the advocacy group Marijuana Justice, said there needs to be more nuanced policy.

“Our first step is to put equity back into the bills,” she said, pointing to failed legislative proposals that would have reinvested tax revenue into communities harmed by the war on drugs and lowered barriers Black entrepreneurs may face when entering the new market.

But the challenges don’t stop at the adult-use marketplace.

On Tuesday, the Cannabis Control Authority board heard a presentation that said the state’s medical marijuana program is “struggling to capture patients.”

Currently, six regional monopolies are permitted under the medical marijuana program, which also limits the number of dispensaries that sell marijuana. The companies must conduct all aspects of the business: cultivation, manufacture, distribution and sales.

The study of the commonwealth’s medical market was conducted by a contractor after Republican Del. Bobby Orrock (R-Caroline) requested the information from the CCA. More than 1,800 people, 476 who were reported to be certified medical cannabis patients, participated in the study.

The authors included a number of policy recommendations, ranging from eliminating the regional monopoly framework to adding limited new licenses for medical cultivation, manufacturing and dispensaries. Another was allowing pharmaceutical processors to open more stores than are currently permitted within their monopoly region.

The study also found 90% of patients purchased cannabis from sources other than the Virginia medical market, with 57% growing marijuana at home and 12% traveling to other localities to obtain cannabis due to lower prices. Nearly 60% of the survey’s participants, which also included those who use marijuana for non-medical purposes, obtained cannabis from a “dealer.”

Higgs Wise said it’s impossible to separate the adult-use and medical markets.

“That's just not how the consumer base is going to be looking at them,” she said. “We have to realize that these types of regulatory differences … simultaneously create benefits for the haves and barriers for the have-nots.”

While possession of small amounts and use of marijuana is legal in Virginia, there can still be repercussions. Custody and visitation rights can be revoked due to cannabis use. And though protections exist for medical use, employers can still compel employees to take a drug test.

Jahd Khalil covers local government, the economy and labor issues for VPM News. Previously, he covered state government for RadioIQ and was a freelance journalist based in Egypt.