PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — A few years down the road, in 2024, marijuana sales will be allowed in Virginia.

But there’s a major political battle brewing over how dispensary licenses will be doled out.

So, why those licenses are causing so much controversy?

Part of the new marijuana law that legalizes small amounts of marijuana includes Social Equity Licenses.

Those licenses are set aside primarily for Black Americans who have been disproportionately targeted in marijuana arrests over the course of decades. As of right now, the number that will be set aside is undetermined.

The criteria to get one includes that a person:  

  • Graduated from a historically black college or university   
  • Resides in a jurisdiction disproportionately targeted by police for marijuana arrests, Or that is economically distressed 
  • Was convicted of misdemeanor violations relating to marijuana, or are a relative of someone who has been convicted, 

Those set-aside licenses created issues with Republican state leaders, but the bill became law anyway because democrats control the General Assembly.

As we know, buying and selling marijuana won’t be legal except for those with medical permits until 2024.  Sometime during 2023 and early 2024 the state will start issuing retail licenses to people to sell the marijuana and other cannabis products.  

It is also possible the dates of implementation could be accelerated if Democrats hold control of the General Assembly.

There will be no more than 400 retail licenses to sell marijuana, and they could be awarded around July 2023. We asked Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) how he would describe the new marijuana law. 

“I think it’s asinine. It’s insanity run amuck,” Davis said.  

Davis is most concerned about page 130 of the 283-page law, 

“There will be set aside licenses for social purposes,” Davis said.

The set-aside licenses were included in the bill to correct a long history of bias against African Americans in marijuana arrests.

“We knew it was bad. We didn’t know it was that bad,” Norfolk Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramin Fatehi.

For two years in Norfolk, 80% of first offense marijuana arrests were African Americans, so Norfolk stopped prosecuting simple possession of marijuana altogether.

“Do I have a problem with them saying ‘Because you broke the law, I’m going to give you a special license’? Heck yeah,” said Davis.  

The conviction criteria led Republicans to oppose the Democratic-backed marijuana bill, and the vote was down party lines.  

“What you’re saying if something is illegal, and you don’t agree with it, break the law because if it became legal you go to the front of the line to benefit from it. How asinine is that?” Davis continued.

Then there’s the other side.

“People of color as a whole should benefit from this legislation because of the war on drugs,” said well-known Norfolk concert producer Antonio Dowe, who supports social equity licenses. 

“I mean, come on. It’s 2021. The war on drugs has been the weirdest lie and fable for so long,” he said.

It should be noted, Dowe does not meet any of the criteria for a social equity license including never being arrested.

“There are still some of us who do not fit those criteria, but should still benefit from social equity licenses,” he said.  

For example, the concert producer just sold out the Norfolk Scope on July 4. He’s very well connected to top liners in hip hop like Beanie Siegal and Lil Baby, who is currently among the biggest hip hop artists in the country. 

Dowe has a proven track record, so why shouldn’t he get a license, he argues.

“It is not that I think African Americans are going to be disproportionately pushed out. Somebody is going to get a chance, but what I want to make sure is that they are going to give enough people a chance,” he said.

Dowe fears the protective measures to ensure social equity will come up short.

“We already have tons of organizations and different city structures and municipalities that are supposed to protect and serve African Americans, and people of color in a positive way, and they continue to fail,” he said.  

Dowe wanted to be clear: he is not negative on the new law.

“I give everyone high fives who supported this, but I just want to know, what’s next?” he said.

Davis made it clear.

“If we take back the House of Delegates, we are going to fix all this mess… I’m also opposed to any taxpayer-funded money going to criminals to start businesses because they broke the law,” he said.