Adult-use cannabis sales could begin next year in Virginia, but lawmakers in the commonwealth remain at loggerheads over what to do about individuals currently incarcerated on pot-related charges.
The Virginia Mercury reported that a committee of state Senate and House members “tasked with making recommendations for the legislative session that begins Wednesday concluded its work this week with a proposal to begin recreational sales in 2023—a year earlier than initially planned,” but those lawmakers “said they ran out of time to reach an agreement” on the subject of re-sentencing for cannabis convictions.
The current state of play in Virginia looks quite different than it did last spring, when a Democratic-controlled general assembly passed a bill that made Virginia the first state in the south to legalize recreational pot.
Virginia’s Democratic Governor Ralph Northam signed the bill into law, hailing it as a new day for criminal justice in the commonwealth.
“What this really means is that people will no longer be arrested or face penalties for simple possession that follow them and affect their lives,” Northam said at the time. “We know that marijuana laws in Virginia and throughout this country have been disproportionately enforced against communities of color and low-income Virginians.”
Last week, as lawmakers convened in the capital city of Richmond, the GOP officially assumed control over one-half of the general assembly. And on Saturday, the Republican Glenn Youngkin was sworn in as the new governor of Virginia.
The recommendation from the Cannabis Oversight Commission to begin cannabis sales next year came last week ahead of the opening of the legislative session.
Youngkin said in an interview earlier this month that he “will not seek to overturn the law on personal possession,” but the governor-elect—who defeated the Democrat Terry McAuliffe in November—balked on the subject of pot sales.
“When it comes to commercialization, I think there is a lot of work to be done. I’m not against it, but there’s a lot of work to be done,” Youngkin told Virginia Business. “There are some nonstarters, including the forced unionization that’s in the current bill. There have been concerns expressed by law enforcement in how the gap in the laws can actually be enforced. Finally, there’s a real need to make sure that we aren’t promoting an anti-competitive industry. I do understand that there are preferences to make sure that all participants in the industry are qualified to do the industry well.”
The subject of how to handle individuals currently serving time for cannabis didn’t come up in that interview, nor was it addressed by the legislative committee last week.
The Virginia Mercury reported that the “Virginia Department of Corrections says 10 people are currently serving sentences in which the most serious offense was marijuana,” and that in “all of the cases, the people were convicted of transporting five or more pounds of marijuana into the state.”
“All 10 are expected to be released in the next six years, according to the department, which presented the data Monday to the assembly’s Cannabis Oversight Commission,” according to the report. “Another 560 people are serving sentences partially related to a marijuana offense but have also been found guilty of more serious offenses.”
In the interview with Virginia Business earlier this month, Youngkin did discuss the potential economic windfall from legalization, particularly for minority communities.
“I am all for opportunities for minority-owned businesses, women-owned businesses [and] military-owned businesses,” he said. “We also have to make sure that they have the capabilities to compete and thrive in the industry. So, I think there’s work to be done. All of that will be on the table. Again, I don’t look to overturn the bill, but I think we need to make sure that it works.”
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Virginia has definitely decriminalized cannabis, but with Republican governor in control, it’s not clear if cannabis convictions will be re-sentenced.
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