- Posted on: Apr 20 2022
By: Ben Barlow [4/20/22]
With last year’s change of control in the Virginia legislature (and Governor’s mansion), many small business owners eager to apply for licenses to sell adult-use cannabis (recreational marijuana) had no idea what to expect. To re-cap where things in the Old Dominion stood prior to the 2021 vote – a medical cannabis program was in place, and adult recreational use had been decriminalized (a measure supported by 83% of polled voters in 2019) and then legalized.
Still to be determined, however, was how licensing and sales/taxing would occur. Laws passed had created a Cannabis Control Authority (discussed in earlier blog posts) and created broad parameters which would guide the creation of regulations – but small business owners entered the first week of November 2021 with only a general timeline in hand.
Fast forward to March of 2022 – Virginia now has a Republican Governor and Republican control of both statehouses. Despite the change in party control, many tended towards a pragmatic view of how the new Governor and Legislature would treat the issue of recreational cannabis. First, using 2021 numbers, a clear majority of Virginia voters supported the legalization of adult recreational use (68% for, 32% against). Second, a majority of Republican voters supported legalization (51% for). Third, an overwhelming majority of voters aged 18-44 supported legalization (79% for).  That polling would seem to make legalization a no-brainer even if there was not a ‘first to market’ incentive leading many to advocate for legalization and taxation before neighboring states take action (Not to mention the District of Columbia – left in a perpetual gray area due to Congress’s oversight of the District budget).
Proponents of legalization had hoped that the 2022 legislative session would speed up the original timeline. That timeline slated sales to begin on January 1, 2024, with applications filed and licenses issued in 2023. Legalization proponents and would-be retailers thought that timeline could be advanced – and they were right before November 2021.
For those hoping that many of their Cannabis-related questions would be answered over the past few months, the legislative session was disappointing.
Although a 200-Page wide-ranging bill that would have sped up the timeline and addressed specifics about regulations and sales had significant support in the legislature, the judiciary committee voted along party lines (5 to 3) to carry the bill over until the 2023 session.  Realistically, that means that the original timeline will not be altered unless the Cannabis Control Authority seems to move quickly at developing regulations and processes and there is some external reason for the 2023 legislature to speed the process (external pressure as in competition in the marketplace and with other states – recreational use will be on the Maryland ballot this November).
In the meantime, the failure of the legislature to act is being heralded by some Virginia Republicans who want to see the entire legalization scheme overturned. That is unlikely. No matter the side of the aisle, it seems that most Virginia politicians want to stay in office. Trying to roll back cannabis legalization in the face of voter support after another whole year of Virginians engaging in home-cultivation and recreational use is likely a ship that has sailed. Given the fact that cannabis may have been de-scheduled by the time the 2023 legislature meets, significant changes to cannabis legalization in the Commonwealth are unlikely.
For businesses interested in being ready for the eventual start of retail sales, the situation is murkier. How the original parameters of the Act legalizing recreational use change (in terms of the number of licenses, geographic limitations on licensing, or social equity aims of legalization) is up in the air. The best clients can hope for in the current climate is to have counsel from those who ‘know what they don’t know’ and are prepared to shepherd clients through the application and licensing process no matter how that process eventually works.
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