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Va. legislature kicks can down the road on further cannabis regulation and retail sales

Marijuana (Photo by Rick Proctor on Unsplash)

Virginians are going to have to wait until next year to see any further movement on cannabis regulation and legalization of retail sales.

A bill — SB 591 — that would have regulated cannabis products shapes, banned Delta-8, increased penalties for possessing more than the legal limit, and reclassified many CBD products as marijuana was effectively killed in the Virginia Senate yesterday (April 27) with a bipartisan vote.

It was close to a year ago that marijuana first became legal in the Commonwealth. At the forefront of this push was Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-39), who represents a portion of Arlington.

While the achievement was celebrated by advocates, there remains much to be figured out. Notably, there’s still no legal retail market and regulation remains incomplete.

One bill that would have contributed to regulating marijuana products was SB 591. When it was first introduced back in January, it initially only dealt with the sale of cannabis products in shapes that could appeal to children — like candy, fruit, or animals. Despite it being introduced by a Republican, Ebbin and other local Democrats initially supported it.

“It was the right thing to do,” Ebbin tells ARLnow.

But a series of amendments from Governor Glenn Youngkin significantly altered the bill, adding in provisions about CBD products, Delta-8, and making possession over the legal limit a crime rather than a civil infraction.

“The governor’s amendments were ill-constructed, poorly thought out, and left lots of loopholes,” Ebbin says. “The original bill was better.”

The state Senator says the modified legislation “left a door open” for production of other synthetic marijuana products besides Delta-8, allowed for the removal of THC limits on packaging, and re-criminalized possession of over an ounce.

“The government’s proposed penalties for personal possession of two ounces of marijuana were more punitive than the laws that were in place prior to Virginia’s enactment of decriminalization in 2020,” Ebbin says.

SB 591 had a bit of a unique journey. The original bill, introduced by a Republican, was passed unanimously in the Senate and with very limited opposition in the House of Delegates. It was then sent to Governor Youngkin’s desk, who changed it by adding those amendments.

It was, then, sent back to the Senate yesterday for a vote where it was deadlocked with 20 yeas and 20 nays. However, Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears (R) broke the tie, essentially going against the Governor from her own party.

With the bill being referred back to the committee, both the Governor’s amendments and the original bill are dead and any related legislation will have to wait until at least next year to be considered again for enactment.

Well, it’s disappointing,” says Ebbin. “People need to be aware of what they are buying.”

This is the second time in just the last couple of months that a bill aimed at creating infrastructure for a legal cannabis retail market in Virginia was voted down.

Ebbin’s own SB 391 would have allowed existing medical dispensaries to start selling retail cannabis starting in September. While it passed the Democratic-controlled Senate, the Republican-controlled House of Delegates pushed the decision until next year.

For the moment, the Cannabis Oversight Commission — for which Ebbin is Chair — will continue to review the two bills with the hope that a consensus can be built with how best to move forward on marijuana legislation in Virginia next year.

While Ebbin remains hopeful that 2023 will bring cannabis retail sales and further market regulation, he’s a bit skeptical.

“I’ve learned not to be overly optimistic in this field,” he says. “This is a product that’s now legal for adults 21 and older. So, it’s in our best interest to make sure this is a tested, regulated product.”

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