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Legislators have nipped Virginia’s budding cannabis industry, advocates say 

Despite commitments from both major parties to improve on and regulate the marijuana industry, cannabis advocates say the General Assembly has left a flourishing industry in the weeds. 

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By Josephine Walker

Jacob Williamson grows, makes, and sells hemp-based CBD products through his family’s Hens and Hemp farm. He went through the permitting process to be a hemp farmer when it became legal in 2019, but now he is leaving the industry.

“We can’t keep up with the multimillion-dollar cannabis industry coming into the state,” Williamson said. “So, we’re just gonna stop because it’s too much.”

Williamson represents a group of entrepreneurs concerned about the future of the commercial hemp industry in Virginia, because of what they say is the risk and increased regulation of selling these products.

Industrial hemp definition changes

Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, introduced Senate Bill 591 which originally focused on the prohibition of cannabis goods that can be easily confused with everyday treats, and that are shaped like a “human, animal, vehicle, or fruit.”

“It would restrict the use of products that appeal to children through gummies,” Hanger said in committee.

The Virginia General Assembly allowed farmers to grow industrial hemp starting in 2019.

Lawmakers passed an amended version of Hanger’s bill, which redefines marijuana as any cannabis product with over .3% THC or .25 milligrams of THC per serving. That includes some non-intoxicating CBD products. The bill, however, excludes industrial hemp that is possessed by a person or company who holds a U.S. Department of Agriculture hemp producer license, as long as the THC level remains under .3%.

It is currently legal to possess, but not sell marijuana in the state of Virginia.

The .3% THC threshold comes from the 2018 Federal Farm bill. Anything over .3% THC is still federally defined as marijuana. In 2018, most marijuana used recreationally contained over 15% THC, according to the National Institute for Drug Abuse.

Hemp advocates are upset because they say the bill will limit product sales of items from edibles to salves.

Hanger told a Roanoke Times reporter recently that lawmakers “kind of stirred a hornet’s nest” but there is time to work on the bill before the legislature reconvenes in late April.

“Delta-8” legal loophole

Legislators want to crack down on the sale of Delta-8-THC, which has a similar chemical structure as the main psychoactive compound, or Delta-9, found in marijuana that gets users high. Delta-8 typically comes from hemp-derived CBD, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Many Delta-8 products, which are low in THC, are made in a lab because additional chemicals are needed to increase the amount of THC, according to industry website Cannabis Tech.

The products get people buzzed, but still fall into a legal loophole. And a few adverse reactions to Delta-8 products have been reported to the FDA.

“I recognize there are a lot of legitimate businesses with legitimate products out there that shouldn’t be forced out of the market,” Hanger said. “But I think the broader issue right now is public safety.”

The U.S. Hemp Roundtable, a national advocacy group for hemp cultivators, stated in a press release that it supports regulation for public safety, but that new regulations are too broad.

“Advocates for SB591 provided no scientific basis or public safety justifications for these arbitrary restrictions,” the group stated.

The Virginia Hemp Coalition is an industrial hemp education and advocacy group whose goal is to create new agricultural and manufacturing opportunities for hemp farmers. The group has been involved in campaigns to amend SB 591 and shared a petition that has garnered almost 4,000 signatures. The group also wants Congress to expand the THC threshold to 1% in the next Farm Bill.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service issues hemp permits and tests THC concentrations of hemp plants. The THC levels increase as CBD levels increase in the cannabis plant. Growers run the risk of getting higher THC levels in their cannabis plants in order to get a higher amount of CBD.

Henry Watkins, chief of staff for Sen. Adam Ebbins, D-Alexandria, said hemp growers might see a little more regulatory oversight, more testing and enforcement.

“I think folks who are saying this wasn’t enforced before are really saying ‘no one enforced it on me before,’” Watkins said.

Nipping the budding market

Many stores throughout Virginia since 2019 began selling a variety of CBD-based, low-THC products for a variety of reasons and ailments.

People who want to buy actual, high quantity THC marijuana can easily find it, despite the risk of prosecution. Some sellers offer delivery options and showcase product menus on social media. Many people began operating in those spaces when marijuana possession was decriminalized and in anticipation of the legal recreational market that many thought was greenlit for 2024.

Both parties mostly agreed a legal recreational marijuana market would generate substantial tax revenue for Virginians, but the session ended without lawmakers adopting a framework for sales.

The bill that passed in 2021 needed to be reenacted in the 2022 session, but a House committee continued the bill to the next session next year, effectively killing the reenactment clause and likely the January 2024 start date for recreational sales. The only way marijuana can be obtained legally is if it is grown or gifted, or if an individual has a state-issued medical marijuana card.

David Treccariche sells lab-tested CBD products at his boutique dispensary Skooma in Charlottesville. Hanger’s bill was an “absolute death nail in the coffin” for the industry, he said.

Treccariche said he expected small business owners to be more involved in cannabis policy making.

“They’re [Republicans] theoretically, pro-small business, limited government, limited oversight, limited regulations,” Treccariche said. “He’s a Republican, he should improve small businesses. Why would he shut me down?”

Treccariche’s products have QR codes for consumer protection, with nutrition information and THC concentrations for his products.

Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, is co-owner of a Norfolk shop that sells legal CBD products. Some products sold at the store were over the threshold for allowed THC, according to a report published by the Virginia Mercury. The dispensary could be affected by Hanger’s legislation.

Lucas, who co-patroned the 2021 legislation that decriminalized simple possession of marijuana, voted for Hanger’s original bill but not the final amendment. She did not respond to repeated phone and email requests for comment on the bill.

Michael J. Massie, an attorney and board member of the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority, said there is no gray area for selling marijuana products.

 “There is no provision that allows for the legal sales of marijuana at this juncture,” he said. “You sort of put yourself in a very precarious position where you might be prosecuted.”

Marijuana advocate Dylan Bishop, a lobbyist for the Cannabis Business Association of Virginia, argued in a committee hearing that having a legal market allows consumers to verify a product’s authenticity.

The association doesn’t think limiting the definition of hemp or cracking down on low THC levels in CBD products is the best course. Instead, they suggested stringent testing and labeling requirements, which advise the consumer of any potential psychoactive effect.

The General Assembly will hold its reconvene session on April 27. Hanger said he is open to suggestions about modifying his bill.

 “Let’s regulate some stuff for safety,” Williamson said. “I can see that. However, they probably didn’t realize how far a little law could change a lot for a bunch of farms.”

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Local Asian American Society of Central Virginia to host author and artist of new book

Author Joe Kutchera and artist Alfonso Pérez Acosta teamed up on the new coffee table art book, which features the portraits and stories of 22 immigrants who have come to Richmond from around the world to become our neighbors.

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The Asian American Society of Central Virginia (AASoCV) will host a local author and artist this weekend to present their new book, Portraits of Immigrant Voices, at its 24th annual Asian America Celebration tomorrow.

Author Joe Kutchera and artist Alfonso Pérez Acosta teamed up on the new coffee table art book, which features the portraits and stories of 22 immigrants who have come to Richmond from around the world to become our neighbors.

Alfonso Pérez Acosta painted the original portraits while Joe Kutchera wrote the personal histories. The author’s proceeds will benefit Afghan and Asian refugees who have settled in Virginia in a fund set up and managed by The Asian American Society of Central Virginia, a non-profit charitable 501(c)(3) organization.

The event is free and open to the general public. The pair will present the book on stage at 2pm and immediately following, AASoCV will host a book signing at 2:30pm. The book will be on sale for $40 at the event.

The 24th Annual Asian American Celebration features cultural performances, food, hands-on activities, exhibition booths, and merchandise from the Asian American communities in Central Virginia. This year’s theme is “weddings and our heritage.” The Celebration will take place at the Greater Richmond Convention Center at 403 North Third Street, Richmond VA 23219 from 11am to 7pm.

Learn more here.

The introduction to the book follows below:

Stories of Gratitude, Progress, and Manifesting Dreams

By Joe Kutchera

During the fall of 2020, following the George Floyd protests along Richmond’s Monument Avenue, I saw an African American woman wearing a t-shirt with this message in bold letters.

I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.

As a (white) writer, I was stunned at how one sentence could leave me speechless and make me feel such a wide range of emotions. At first, I felt infinitesimally small, humbled by the brutal African American history behind that sentence, reflecting the violence and intimidation that Black Americans experienced during slavery and Jim Crow, which kept them from America’s prosperity. And seconds later, the sentence made me feel incredibly hopeful as it communicated that great progress and change is indeed possible, measured through a multi-generational lens, taking into account the sacrifice and suffering of previous generations. The formerly wild dream of freedom and opportunity is now, we hope, finally possible for African Americans today, though we still have a long way to go to ensure equitable outcomes for all Americans.

Many Americans may know Richmond, Virginia (RVA) for its history as the capital of the Confederacy with its Civil War Museum and the now-removed statues of Robert E. Lee and Confederate generals along Monument Avenue. The ugly history of slavery and the myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ permeate so much of the city, but a more complex and hopeful picture of its citizens is emerging.

In decades past, a majority of RVA’s population has been Black, with Whites representing most of the remainder of its population. Yet, a more multicultural, and even international population, is growing out of RVA’s Black and White history. The 2020 Census shows that RVA’s African American population fell below 50%, while its White population increased as a result of gentrification. Blacks appear to have left Richmond City for the suburbs (Henrico and Chesterfield Counties), where the Black population increased. Yet, the Asian and Hispanic/Latino population grew by double digits in Richmond City, Henrico and Chesterfield Counties, and the people who selected “some other race” and “two or more races” grew by triple digits. This reflects an increase in children of interracial couples, immigrants from Africa (distinct from African Americans), as well as ‘mestizos,’ or people of mixed races, from Latin America. However small those populations might be now, the growth rates indicate that RVA, like the rest of the country, is becoming much more diverse.

With this in mind, I am grateful to be working with the Asian American Society of Central Virginia in sponsoring the publication of this book. AASoCV represents 18 diverse Asian communities that have stood up against racism and xenophobia, as described by AASoCV’s chair, Julie Laghi, in the foreword. AASoCV provides a perfect example of how people from vastly different language groups can come together to build community and cultural bridges, thereby promoting tolerance and diversity.

AASoCV has enabled me and the team involved behind this book to take this project to the next level, furthering our mission to share immigrant stories and reflect on how they embody the American dream. Tida Tep, the daughter of Pim Bhut, featured on page 70, joins us to visually bring these stories into the printed medium.

Our project initially began in an organic way. In August 2020, around the time that I saw the “I am my ancestors’ wildest dream” t-shirt, I received a call from Karla Almendarez-Ramos, who manages the City of Richmond’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Engagement (OIRE). She asked me if I would be interested in and available to write profiles of immigrants as a celebration for National Immigrants’ Day on October 28, 2020. Richmond-based Colombian artist, teacher and muralist, Alfonso Pérez Acosta, had pitched the idea to Karla after crafting his initial computer-drawn portraits.

I immediately told her yes, that I would love to work on the project. I have written about and reflected on the subject of immigrants’ journeys previously, both interviewing recent immigrants and researching my own ancestors immigrating from Eastern Europe to the United States. My wife, Lulu, migrated from Mexico, to join me in Richmond in 2013. And previously, I had migrated to Mexico and the Czech Republic for work, during different chapters of my life. As a result, I also understand the immense challenges that immigrants face when moving to a new country.

National Immigrants’ Day has been celebrated since 1986, but mostly in places like New York City. We wanted to bring this celebration to Richmond, Virginia to highlight the diversity of its community and the variety of languages spoken (in addition to English). With the support of a grant from Virginia Humanities, we unveiled the portraits on October 28th, National Immigrants Day, on RVAStrong.org/portraits and published updates regularly through Thanksgiving, to honor our subject’s themes of gratitude. The exhibit’s social media campaign ran through December 18th, which the United Nations has named International Migrants Day as a testament to humanity’s “will to overcome adversity and live a better life.”

Many of the people we featured came as migrants initially, moving to the U.S. temporarily for work or educational opportunities. While others came as refugees, fleeing war and violence. And still others came here simply because they fell in love with an American! Yet, they all became immigrants when they decided to settle down permanently in the United States.

Each portrait features the subject’s name, country of origin, and language, written in both English and their respective language. To create the color behind each portrait, Alfonso blended all the colors from each subject’s flag of their home country to formulate that single, albeit blended color. For example, the red and white in the Swiss flag become pink behind Dominik Meier’s portrait (on page 62). I wrote personal histories to accompany each portrait to shed light on the challenges of migration and displacement, as well as explore the commonalities of learning to speak English and integrating into American culture. Their stories showcase the incredible creativity and ingenuity of these immigrants in overcoming numerous obstacles in their journey, some of whom have gone on to start companies and obtain graduate degrees.

In speaking with everyone we featured in this book, they have taught me how Richmond is a far more diverse and dynamic city than I ever realized. They truly appreciate America’s freedom, democracy, and the way that their neighbors have accepted them. As a result, I see Richmond and the United States through their eyes. In listening to their stories, I get the sense that they, too, have accomplished their dreams, and in some cases, even their ancestors’ wildest dreams.

“Virginia is for lovers. … But we need to keep that slogan alive,” says Mahmud Chowdhury, originally from Bangladesh (#19 in the series), referring to the state motto of Virginia. “Let’s continue to love each other, be our brother’s keeper and have each other’s back,” says Hannah Adesina, from Nigeria (#17 in the series). Immigrants are here “to demonstrate the best of ourselves, manifest our hopes and dreams,” says Brenda Aroche, from Guatemala (#13 in the series). And Ping Chu from China (#12 in the series) encourages us all in saying, “We need to build up a united country. This is the United States, right?”

The United States has an individualistic culture with an “I” oriented English language. Even though that is the case, the immigrants featured in this book have taught me that when we work together and support one another, WE can become our ancestors’ wildest dreams.

When Chinese New Year celebrations took place on February 1, 2022, the same day that Black History Month began, I learned that 2022 was the year of the tiger. I realized that 2022 couldn’t be a more perfect year for us to launch this book with a symbol of bravery, courage, and strength on our side.

Joe Kutchera is the author of four books and the founder of Latino Link Advisors where he develops digital marketing and content strategies, with an emphasis in reaching the U.S. Hispanic market.

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Suspension Bridge to Belle Isle Closed Today

The bridge should be completed by the weekend.

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The suspension pedestrian bridge to Belle Isle is temporarily closed due to concrete falling from Lee Bridge.

The closure took place Wednesday after city officials received reports of concrete pieces being found on the pedestrian bridge.

“It was concluded that the concrete pieces fell from an open joint of the Lee Bridge. Consequently, the pedestrian bridge located directly under the open joint had to be closed in an effort to protect the public,” a release said.

While the engineers say there is no serious danger they’re putting in a scaffolding protection system along some stretches of the bridge. The installation is taking place today (Thursday) and is expected to be done Friday.

Dominion RiverRock is this weekend and temperatures are in expected in the upper 90’s so usage of the bridge and Belle Isle will be at a season-high.

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Virginia lawmakers dodge questions on whether budget might include new policy on skill games

“Let’s keep ’em guessing,” House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said Tuesday when asked for a response to the claim the budget could include a revised policy on skill games, either to tighten the existing ban or to lift it.

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By Graham Moomaw

Budget leaders in the Virginia General Assembly won’t say if they’re considering changing the state’s contested ban on slots-like skill machines through the budget, despite that possibility already convincing a judge to order a lengthy delay in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban.

Last month, lawyers challenging the ban as unconstitutional pointed to the legislature’s ongoing special session and unfinished budget to argue the case should be delayed until all sides know what the state’s official policy on skill games will be. But the General Assembly’s budget negotiators won’t even say whether skill-games are part of their discussions.

“Let’s keep ’em guessing,” House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said Tuesday when asked for a response to the claim the budget could include a revised policy on skill games, either to tighten the existing ban or to lift it.

Knight insisted the budget will get done and said “fine-tuning” is underway.

“In negotiations, I don’t comment on anything,” Knight said. “That’s how I work a negotiation.”

Asked about potential skill games changes Tuesday after a meeting in Richmond, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, one of the 14 legislators working on the state budget, deferred to Senate Finance Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax. Howell did not attend Tuesday morning’s Senate Finance Committee meeting, and she did not respond to an emailed request for comment Monday. In an email, a Senate budget staffer said “budget negotiations are ongoing.”

As Virginia recently relaxed laws to allow more types of state-sanctioned gambling, skill games have become a perennial point of contention. Usually found in convenience stores, sports bars and truck stops, they function similarly to chance-based slot machines but involve a small element of skill that allows backers to argue they’re more akin to traditional arcade games. Most machines involve slots-like reels and spins, but players have to slightly adjust the squares up or down in order to create a winning row of symbols.

Proponents insist the games are legal and give small Virginia business owners a piece of an industry dominated by big casino interests. In 2019, the chief prosecutor in Charlottesville concluded that they amount to illegal gambling devices, and critics have accused the industry of exploiting loopholes to set up a lucrative gaming enterprise that rapidly grew with minimal regulatory oversight.

After a one-year period of regulation and taxation to raise money for a COVID-19 pandemic relief fund, the critics won out in the General Assembly, with a ban on the machines taking effect in July 2021. But a Southside business owner who filed a lawsuit with the assistance of Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, successfully won a court injunction late last year barring enforcement of that law until his legal challenge is resolved. After Stanley wrote a letter pointing to the special session and unfinished budget talks as a reason to delay a hearing scheduled for May 18, the judge overseeing the case postponed the hearing until Nov. 2. The order also prohibited the state from enforcing the ban against thousands of previously regulated skill machines until November. The order doesn’t apply to machines that weren’t fully legal before the ban took effect, a distinction sowing confusion for local officials trying to sort out what’s allowed and what’s not.

In recent social media posts, the plaintiff challenging the ban, truck stop owner and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler, said the delay was requested because “legislators are threatening to now try to ban or legislate skill games through the budget.”

“So we need to know what we are fighting against,” Sadler said in a message posted to Twitter last week in response to a Virginia Mercury article about the delay.

Skill-game supporters have claimed the ban was driven by other gambling interests who want to clear out smaller competitors to make more money for themselves. As the gambling turf wars continue in Richmond, some local governments are frustrated by the lack of clarity on whether the state is or isn’t banning the machines.

“It’s created chaos,” said Franklin City Manager Amanda Jarratt.

Jarratt said her city has been dealing with crime and other disturbances associated with the machines, but has gotten little help because there’s no regulatory agency in charge of them. Virginia ABC had temporary oversight of the machines starting in 2020, but that ended when the ban took effect last year and ABC no longer had legal responsibility over gaming machines in ABC-licensed businesses.

“It continuing to drag on over months is only making the situation worse and leaving localities in a difficult position,” she said, adding her city simply doesn’t have the staffing power to try to figure out which machines are operating legally and which are illegal. “You want to be fair to the business owners, but you also need to look out for the best interest of the locality as a whole.”

Jarratt said she’d like clearer direction on whether the state is going to allow the machines or not.

If a new skill-game provision is put into the state budget, it would still need to win approval from the full General Assembly. But with the clock ticking to pass a budget before the fiscal year ends June 30, it’s unclear how open party leaders would be to changes to whatever deal budget negotiators present as the final product of months of work.

Knight offered little clarity on whether skill games are even a live issue. He also seemed to caution against putting too much stock into what people say they’re hearing about the budget.

“I heard that we were going to do the budget today. I heard we were going to do it on the 24th. I heard we were going to do it on the 27th. I’ve heard June the first. I’ve heard a lot of things,” Knight said. “But as far as I know, the only people that know are maybe a few budget conferees. And we’re not talking. Because we’re working to get things right.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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