“Fast-tracking the large existing medical marijuana corporations would ring a bell that cannot be unrung, much to their investors’ delight.”
By Chelsea Higgs Wise, Marijuana Justice
If you are experiencing déjà vu over the marijuana legislation before the Virginia General Assembly this year, you could be forgiven. As was the case in 2023, the General Assembly is currently considering various proposals on how to implement the retail sales of marijuana to adults 21 and over.
Specifically, the issue boils down to either fast-tracking adult-use marijuana sales by allowing existing medical marijuana operators—most of which are based out of state—to sell to any adult, or whether Virginians who have been harmed the most by marijuana criminalization should be given a fair chance to compete in this new economy.
The proposal to fast-track retail sales, HB 698, as introduced would be a significant departure from the original bill that was passed in 2021 under which consumption, possession, sharing and growing became legal. That legislation also contained provisions for legal sales, but those were subject to reenactment—which didn’t happen after Republicans won control of the House and governor’s office in that year’s elections.
In addition to legalizing consumption, possession and home cultivation of marijuana, the 2021 bill was much celebrated for its commitment to ensuring that Black communities disproportionately harmed by decades of criminal enforcement are given a fair opportunity to prosper by legally distributing the same thing they may have previously been arrested for selling.
Now that Democrats are back in control of both chambers of the legislature, advocates are hopeful that we can pass something that centers opportunities for people harmed by criminalization.
But just as last year, powerful lobbyists hired by large, out-of-state corporations are attempting to undermine the spirit of the 2021 bill that puts economically disadvantaged Virginians ahead of corporate interests.
The main thing that is different this year is that the advocates working to preserve fair economic opportunities for local Virginians are willing to compromise. The pathway to retail sales under the 2021 bill would have done the most to ensure the economic viability of Black-owned marijuana businesses based in Virginia by giving them a head start to catch up to existing out of state medical marijuana operators who already have their infrastructure in place.
Now, advocates are willing to consider a proposal, SB 448, that would have both existing medical operators and new license applicants, specifically existing hemp licensees, start at the same time while others can start to apply. This compromise is far from perfect, as it still ultimately favors existing medical businesses compared to the initial proposed head start for equity applicants—while continuing to exclude necessary equity provisions such as upfront capital and including people and their family members directly impacted by criminalization.
For their part, the out-of-state corporate interests have offered their own attempt at a compromise in the form of incubator programs. In theory, incubator programs would require the existing out-of-state corporations to pair up with local entrepreneurs to provide mentorship and other benefits as they begin entry into Virginia’s legal marijuana economy.
However, the failures of incubator programs in Illinois and Connecticut to adequately foster growth among new, small marijuana businesses should serve as a cautionary tale to any lawmakers considering that path. These other states demonstrate why the details of incubator programs are of critical importance, yet none of the current proposals before the General Assembly provide clarity on how the program would work.
Naturally, the large companies favor the incubator approach because it puts them in the best position to come out on top while providing a veneer of fairness.
Ultimately, the General Assembly must recognize that there is only one chance to get the implementation of adult-use marijuana sales correct. Fast-tracking the large existing medical marijuana corporations would ring a bell that cannot be unrung, much to their investors’ delight. If granted the opportunity, fast-tracking would ensure out-of-state corporations to be the winners of Virginia’s new marijuana economy for years to come.
Once the smoke clears from the powerful corporate lobbying interests, the choice should be abundantly clear for Virginia lawmakers: If you stand for fair economic opportunities, you cannot support the fast-tracking of retail marijuana for existing medical operators. If the disadvantaged won’t be granted a head start, how is fair to give one to the advantaged?
Chelsea Higgs Wise is a social worker who has worked with individuals harmed by previous marijuana arrests and currently serves as executive director of Marijuana Justice, an organization dedicated to ensuring those most harmed by criminalization are prioritized by marijuana reform legislation.
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