A second Virginia Senate committee has now advanced a bill to legalize retail marijuana sales in the commonwealth, moving the proposal one step closer to the chamber floor. The panel also approved a separate measure that would resentence people currently incarcerated for cannabis-related crimes.
The Senate Courts of Justice Committee passed the measures after making amendments to both at a hearing Wednesday. The marijuana sales bill was approved on a 7–5 vote, with three members abstaining, while the vote on the resentencing bill was 10–5.
Both measures take up matters advocates would like to see addressed following the state’s legalization of adult-use cannabis: the establishment of a legal, regulated market and relief for people still serving time as the result of prohibition.
Use, possession and limited cultivation of cannabis by adults is already legal in Virginia, the result of a Democrat-led proposal approved by lawmakers in 2021. But Republicans, after winning control of the House and governor’s office later that year, subsequently blocked the required reenactment of a regulatory framework for retail sales.
The new sales measure, SB 448, from Sen. Aaron Rouse (D), would begin licensing some adult-use marijuana businesses in July of this year, though retail licenses wouldn’t be available until 2025. Local governments would be able to ban commercial cannabis activity, but only with approval from voters.
“Essentially what this bill does is help set up a well regulated adult retail market for cannabis,” Rouse told committee members. “We have been taking lots and lots of recommendations from a really broad bipartisan effort to get this just right.”
A separate Senate panel, the Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services, passed the measure in a 10–5 vote last week. It’s next slated for a hearing in the Finance and Appropriations Committee before moving on to the full Senate floor.
At Wednesday’s hearing, members first adopted a substitute version of the bill reflecting changes agreed to in the last committee, then made a number of changes of their own.
Sen. Scott Surovell (D), who chairs both committees that have heard the bill so far, has tried to focus each hearing on matters relevant to the respective panel’s jurisdiction. The Courts of Justice hearing, accordingly, centered on enforcement and penalties envisioned in the proposal.
Among the changes made in the hearing were the removal of a prohibition on homemade edible products. The panel also struck a section that would have made it a misdemeanor to bring cannabis across state lines, which Surovell noted is already a federal crime.
Another change removed a provision that would have barred selling any sort of cannabis-related paraphernalia to people under 21. Surovell argued that the language of that provision was so vague that it could “make it illegal to, like, sell a shovel to an 18 year old.”
Another change, suggested by JM Pedini, development director for the advocacy group NORML and executive director of the organization’s Virginia chapter, removed a section of the bill that would allowed municipalities to make it a crime to carry an open container of marijuana in public, including on streets and sidewalks. Public consumption of cannabis, as well as sharing of marijuana between adults in public, is already illegal, Pedini noted.
While the bill provides a framework for legal sales to begin, it would also create a number of new penalties for unlicensed sales. One that sparked considerable pushback from justice advocates is a proposed mandatory minimum sentence that would affect second and subsequent offenses of selling marijuana without a license.
Chelsea Higgs Wise, of the group Marijuana Justice, told lawmakers that she no longer supports Rouse’s bill given its focus on enforcement.
“I came ready today to support this bill,” she said. “I have to oppose this because of the new crimes and the mandatory minimums.”
Another speaker, Kalia Harris of the Virginia Student Power Network, noted that the panel’s apparent effort to align marijuana penalties around similar unlicensed alcohol activity missed the historical difference between how the two substances have been policed.
“Let’s make sure that when we’re creating new laws that we’re not just going back and slapping on alcohol crimes,” she said. “I just ask y’all to be a little more critical with your process and how you’re copying and pasting things from ABC [the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority] to marijuana.”
Other advocates, however, including Pedini at NORML and Jason Blanchette of the Virginia Cannabis Association, said they supported adoption of the bill.
At a Senate cannabis subcommittee hearing earlier this month, lawmakers chose Rouse’s bill over a competing plan from Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), SB 423, which would have allowed existing medical marijuana dispensaries to begin sales to adults more quickly. Critics said the carveout would have unfairly advantaged existing businesses and allowed them to dominate the adult-use market over smaller players.
A companion bill to Ebbin’s measure, however, is still alive in the House.
Among the changes made in the substitute bill, which reflected amendments made in the Committee on Rehabilitation and Social Services, most are technical cleanups. More substantial revisions concern a section on labeling that was simplified so that instead of listing harvest, processing and packaging dates, only an expiration date would need to be affixed to package.
Another change would allow licensed cannabis businesses to take standard tax deductions on their state taxes—something that’s prohibited at the federal level under an Internal Revenue Service rule known as 280E.
Further discussions and possible amendments, particular around tax rates and how the state spends tax revenue from legal marijuana, are expected in the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee.
Meanwhile, advocates said at Wednesday’s hearing that hundreds of people are still incarcerated for marijuana crimes, either on standalone cannabis charges or as the result of marijuana enhancing penalties for other offenses.
SB 696, from Sen. Angelia Williams Graves (D), would work to provide resentencing relief for those individuals, mandating that individuals incarcerated for certain marijuana offenses would receive automatic resentencing hearings and their punishments adjusted.
“It directs courts to consider that marijuana has been legalized—or to some degree legalized—and shall reduce, vacate or otherwise modify the person’s sentence,” Williams Graves told the panel, “including removing such person from community supervision unless the commonwealth demonstrates it would not be compatible with the public interest to do so.”
Many cases would need to be resentenced by the end of the year, while people whose sentences for other crimes were enhanced because of a prior marijuana conviction would receive hearings by April 1, 2025. While most cases would be automatic, some people with convictions would need to petition a court for relief.
Some members raised practical questions about the feasibility of sifting through court records to identify cases eligible for relief, which has been an obstacle in some other states, but members voted to advance the bill nonetheless.
Responding to a question from the panel, Wise at Marijuana Justice pointed to an analysis showing that about 417 people would stand to see relief under the proposal, including an estimated seven people currently incarcerated for simple possession alone.
A variety of civil rights and justice groups also support the measure, including Virginia NAACP, NORML, Rise for Youth, and the Last Prisoner Project.
One amendment adopted at Wednesday’s hearing, which sponsor Williams Graves supported, removed violent felonies from the types of cases that would qualify for relief.
Democrats’ victories last November to clinch control of both legislative chambers, however, have some cannabis advocates hopeful that the state could enact cannabis sales provisions this year. But that path requires building consensus among Democrats in the legislature while also passing a bill that can avoid a possible veto from Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R)—or galvanizing enough lawmakers in the polarized state to overcome a veto.
Regardless of what specifics end up in the legal sales bill, it’s likely to face a skeptical reception from Youngkin, who said earlier this month that he doesn’t have “any interest” in legalizing sales under the Democrat-led bills.
“I just don’t have a lot of interest in pressing forward with marijuana legislation,” he told reporters following his latest State of the Commonwealth address.
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D) said at the time that it’s “an important public safety matter that we have a regulated market.”
“The governor should be careful,” she said. “A bill gets to his desk, and he vetoes it, I’m not sure what that communication is going to be to the public about their safety.”
Youngkin’s disinterest in marijuana reform isn’t necessarily a surprise. Advocates were relieved that he committed to simply not attempt to overturn the noncommercial legalization law enacted by his Democratic predecessor in 2021.
Youngkin said he was “not against” allowing commercial sales, per se when he was first elected. He expressed that there were certain Democratic “non-starters” such as provisions setting labor union requirements for marijuana businesses—and he wanted to address concerns from law enforcement—but he generally indicated that he did believe there was a bill he could support.
That expectation has been tempered during the beginning of the new year, however.
Last session, a cannabis sales bill did advance through the Democratic-controlled Senate, but it stalled out in committee in the House, which at the time had a GOP majority.
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