Republicans in the Virginia House blocked a measure Monday that would have allowed limited retail sales of recreational marijuana to begin later this year.
On a 5-3 party-line vote, the subcommittee voted to continue to 2023 the measure that had cleared the Democrat-controlled Senate earlier this month, effectively defeating it. The action marks the end of the road for the issue this year, said the bill's sponsor, Democratic Sen. Adam Ebbin.
“House Republicans missed an opportunity to crack down on the illicit market and provide a regulated, equitable adult-use market,” he said in an interview.
In 2021, the General Assembly — then fully controlled by Democrats — legalizedadult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and laid the groundwork for retail sales to begin in 2024.
But a reenactment clause in the legislation required the General Assembly to act again on establishing the complex regulatory structure for retail sales. Ebbin's bill as it cleared the Senate would have allowed for what he called “transitional sales,” letting existing medical marijuana providers and a limited number of industrial hemp processors to begin selling recreational marijuana in mid-September, more than a year before the full retail market would have opened in 2024.
Both Republicans and Democrats at various points expressed support for moving up the date for retail sales to try to prevent growth in the illicit market. But a divide over the issue among House GOP members — newly in control of that chamber after November's elections — became clear as this year's legislative session unfolded.
After their members filed at least eight bills that would have amended the 2021 legislation, the GOP House caucus opted not to take any action on those House measures before a legislative deadline.
“I think this is a bigger issue than we can correct in two weeks’ time,” GOP Del. Jeff Campbell said Monday before the committee moved to carry over the legislation.
House Speaker Todd Gilbert tweetedthat Democrats “made a great big mess when they legalized marijuana without putting any regulatory or retail structure in place. We are left having to clean up their mess and we will not make it worse by rushing to fix it.”
Monday's vote happened before the bill got a full hearing. Several Democrats spoke against the move.
“If we don’t have a bill that gives us a well-regulated, adult-use market amidst the backdrop of legalization in Virginia, we are basically providing a year for the growth and strengthening of the illicit market,” said Del. Dawn Adams.
Virginians can currently legally share marijuana, cultivate it at home with certain limits and seek a medical cannabis registration card to purchase it from a medical provider.
JM Pedini, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said Virginia had the fourth-largest illicit cannabis market in 2020, valued at $1.8 billion.
“This is a real disappointment for Virginians who were loudly calling for access to retail sales to begin earlier than 2024. This is a real failure by the legislature to provide for public and consumer safety,” Pedini said.
Meanwhile, a coalition that had opposed the bill celebrated its defeat.
“This is a victory for public safety and families across Virginia. A new addiction-for-profit industry is the last thing our state needs as we contend with the opioid crisis,” Dana Schrad, Executive Director of Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and Foundation, said in a statement. “We commend our lawmakers for making the right decision.”
Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a nonprofit that opposes legalization, said it would be ready to “fight commercialization next year when another attempt will be made to legalize sales.”
Later this week, the House is expected to consider two measures related to previous marijuana convictions. One deals with the process for the expungement of marijuana offenses from a person's record, and the other would open the door for the possibility of resentencing for certain convictions.