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House panel kills watered-down GOP bill on retail marijuana sales

In a nod to the political reality that the Virginia General Assembly is unlikely to legalize retail sales of marijuana this session, a Republican lawmaker encouraged his colleagues to just ask the state’s Cannabis Control Authority to start drawing up rules for a retail marketplace that legislators could look at next year.

Virginia Mercury

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By Graham Moomaw

In a nod to the political reality that the Virginia General Assembly is unlikely to legalize retail sales of marijuana this session, a Republican lawmaker encouraged his colleagues to just ask the state’s Cannabis Control Authority to start drawing up rules for a retail marketplace that legislators could look at next year.

Speaking before a GOP-led House of Delegates subcommittee Tuesday night, Del. Keith Hodges, R-Middlesex, said he’s never been a big fan of sanctioning recreational marijuana use. But, he added, Virginia’s refusal to allow retail marijuana sales — while making marijuana legal to grow at home and possess in small amounts — has created public safety risks from unregulated products that are more widely available than ever.

“If we do nothing, we have a problem on our hands,” Hodges said. “And we need to protect the citizens of Virginia from the illicit market.”

Greg Habeeb, a former Republican delegate turned lobbyist who represents the Virginia Cannabis Association, said the watered-down bill should be entirely uncontroversial and something even Gov. Glenn Youngkin could support, despite the administration’s reluctance to get behind legal weed sales.

“All this bill does is says the [Cannabis Control Authority], that you all have propped up and funded, should do its job of advising you guys of what a market could look like next year,” Habeeb said.

The vote on the bill was far from unanimous. It failed 5-2, with Republicans opposing it and Democrats supporting it. The same subcommittee also rejected a different Republican-sponsored bill that would have actually established a retail marijuana market rather than planning how it could be done in the future.

The Democratic-led state Senate is still working on its own marijuana sales bill, but the action in the House Tuesday evening is a strong sign the 2023 session will be another year of deadlock on the issue.

As he made a motion to block the legislation that simply asked the cannabis board to begin drafting rules for how a retail marketplace would function, Del. Chris Runion, R-Rockingham, said the bill didn’t do anything to address illegal or dangerous products currently being sold in Virginia.

“We do have several bills moving forward that address that,” Runion said. “So I think that needs to be our focus.”

Runion did not lay out a case for why the General Assembly can’t pass both bills, moving toward a retail marketplace while also cracking down on largely unregulated products like hemp-derived delta-8, which can still get users high even though it’s technically not marijuana.

The Youngkin administration is backing legislation to impose stricter regulations on businesses that sell those products, with a particular eye toward protecting children from THC-infused edibles that often come in colorful but confusingly labeled packaging.

Because the hemp regulation bills appear to be moving forward in the Senate, there’s still a chance advocates could try to tie the two issues together. The Youngkin administration has pushed back against that approach.

“The decision on whether to legalize retail sales and whether to clean up harmful hemp products hopefully should be considered separately,” Parker Slaybaugh, chief deputy secretary of agriculture and forestry, told lawmakers at a committee hearing.

Numerous representatives from the cannabis industry have insisted the two topics can’t be separated, arguing the state’s problem with unregulated intoxicating products is a direct result of lawmakers’ failure to set up a state-sanctioned market with safer, legal products.

A lobbyist for Jushi, a company that has one of Virginia’s few licenses to sell medical cannabis but also sells recreational products in states that allow them, emphasized that nothing in the scaled-back, one-page Hodges bill would cause any new dispensaries to open.

“We do things incrementally in Virginia,” said Jushi representative Hunter Jamerson. “I think this is that incremental approach.”

The status of two hemp regulation bills in the House was unclear as of Wednesday afternoon, when both were surprisingly voted down 11-9 in the Courts of Justice Committee. The committee is not yet done with its meetings, so the legislation could still be revived for another vote.

Linking the marijuana and hemp bills together could force the two sides to negotiate a deal later in the session. However, it could also raise the possibility of failure on both fronts if Democrats refuse to support standalone hemp legislation and Republicans insist on blocking retail weed sales.

On the Senate side, the major cannabis bills are pending in the Finance and Appropriations Committee, which is set to meet Thursday. At the urging of progressive activists, the Senate marijuana bill was amended to give Virginians incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses an opportunity to have their sentences reconsidered by the courts. Some Democrats have insisted on that provision, which supporters see as a matter of fairness to Black communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition.

The crossover deadline for each chamber to finish work on its own bills is Tuesday.

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