Recreational weed veto sets back change by several years, proponents say at Arlington forum

A recent Arlington Committee of 100 meeting (via Committee of 100/Youtube)

In the wake of a recent veto of a Virginia recreational marijuana bill, proponents are still holding out hope for future change — but not for at least a couple years.

At an Arlington Committee of 100 meeting last week, State Sens. Adam Ebbin and Aaron Rouse said the chances of the Virginia General Assembly overriding Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s decision earlier this month are slim to none.

Legislation to legalize retail sale of cannabis passed the state House and Senate on thin margins before getting the ax from the governor, who cited public health concerns. Since overruling a veto requires a two-thirds majority, the Democratic senators said the bill’s near-term future will likely hinge on the 2025 governor’s race.

If a Democrat wins, they believe the legislation could potentially pass in 2027.

“I think there’s a recognition even [on] the other side of the aisle that this is what’s coming, with the lack of their effort to try and repeal the progress that we’ve already made,” said Ebbin, a longtime advocate who represents part of Arlington and led the charge to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2020.

Virginia became the first Southern state to legalize medical marijuana in 2021. Rouse, the Virginia Beach senator who introduced the legislation, argued that creating a taxed and regulated retail market would curb the influence of an unregulated black market and generate tax revenue to benefit disadvantaged communities.

“Making sure there’s a market where these products are tested, they’re labeled, they’re sold in safe and licensed places; making sure that kids don’t have … access to these products — it’s needed,” Rouse said.

No matter what path Virginia takes in coming years, speakers at the Committee of 100 meeting said the stakes are high.

Shawn Casey, a deputy chief officer with the nonpartisan Virginia Cannabis Control Authority, noted research on marijuana’s addictive properties and potential harm to brain health and cognitive development. A 2021 survey found that 13% of Virginia high schoolers were using marijuana at least once a month, and 4% of high schoolers had tried the substance for the first time before age 13.

Northern Virginia, Casey said, has a lower portion of marijuana users than the state as a whole, with 20% of the region’s population using the drug in the past three months compared to 24% of surveyed Virginians.

“Data right now is something that’s still emerging in the cannabis world, and so not all of it is as complete as we’d like,” she noted.

Youngkin said in his veto statement that legalizing marijuana’s recreational sale would mean “compounding the risks and endangering Virginians’ health and safety with greater market availability.”

But Rouse argued that the current ban on retail sales encourages people to turn to dealers selling products of unknown potency, which have a chance of being laced with other substances. Complexities in enforcement also allow for a thriving “gray market” of informal sales in which unauthorized cannabis proliferates.

“This was an opportunity to really drive that market away and really put in a safer market,” the state senator said.

Trent Woloveck, chief strategy director at the marijuana cultivator and seller Jushi, estimated that retail sales would generate between $250 million and $300 million in Virginia tax revenue each year. (Casey’s estimate was more conservative, at around $185 million per year.)

Authorized distributors track potency down to the gram and can easily trace all of their products back to their source. Virginia’s medical marijuana dispensaries, Woloveck said, currently help to “counteract” the illicit drug market and “bring real product to bear.”

Rouse pledged to continue advocating for recreational marijuana for as long as it takes.

“The might must go on, and I’m looking forward to continuing that effort,” he said.