RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Cannabis Oversight met today to discuss the rules and regulations it will develop over the next year as it lays the groundwork for full legalization of marijuana by 2024.

The key issues of the day were the structure of the commercial market and the penalties for possession over the threshold set by the General Assembly earlier this year.

It’s currently legal in Virginia to possess up to an ounce of marijuana (or an equivalent amount of products such as vape oil or edibles), but commercial sales won’t begin until Jan. 1, 2024.

Penalties for Possession

The penalty for possessing between an ounce and a pound of marijuana is a $25 fine – a civil penalty, much like a parking ticket. Those possessing more than a pound, however, could face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine – a sharp divide that some advocates have criticized.

But a recommendation from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), tasked with studying marijuana policy and its effects nationwide and reporting the results to the General Assembly, calls for a stiffer penalty for those possessing over an ounce but less than the felony pound threshold.

(Photo: A slide from the JLARC presentation to the Cannabis Commission)

Mark Gribbin, a legislative analyst with JLARC, told the commission that “given the difference between Virginia law and the law in other states” they should consider establishing a misdemeanor penalty for possession over an ounce, but below the felony threshold.

But that proposal drew immediate criticism from activists and members of the public.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, of Marijuana Justice Virginia, emphasized that this would not be “legalizing it right” – a slogan of legalization activists who favor restorative justice measures in addition to decriminalization.

And James Slade, a longtime Richmond resident, called for the abolition of all penalties, including the felony charge for possession of over a pound, telling the commission, “The whole point of decriminalizing it is to decriminalize it.”

The commission won’t take any immediate action on these priorities, but will have to consider them when they help to develop re-authorizing legislation next year, which may include adjustments to the version passed earlier this year.

Getting Down to Business

Another key concern of the JLARC report were potential loopholes in the provisional regulatory structure that might allow large conglomerates to dominate the Virginia cannabis market when it opens fully in 2024.

(Photo: A slide from the JLARC presentation to the Cannabis Commission)

Those areas of concern included a loophole allowing hemp processors to skirt licensing requirements, an exception allowing medical marijuana providers to operate recreational dispensaries, and questions about how Virginia’s “Social Equity Licenses” will work.

Gribbin recommended that the commission reduce the number of recreational dispensaries medical providers could operate, because, as established corporations operating now, they would have a head start on smaller commercial providers, who can’t open until 2024. Currently, up to 30 of these hybrid locations could be opened, potentially making up 7 percent of all retail locations in Virginia.

And Delegate Jeff Campbell (R-Wythe) asked whether social equity licenses – licenses available to those impacted by inequitable marijuana laws – could be sold by their recipients as a way to raise much needed money.

Delegate Charniele Herring (D-Fairfax), a sponsor of the legalization bill, said she opposed that idea and hoped to work towards building lasting businesses for those communities.

“This is about helping individuals create businesses that will last generations,” she said.

David May, a staffer with the Division of Legislative Services, told the commission that in his understanding, it wouldn’t be a problem at all. Much like ABC licenses, he said, “It’s not transferable, you can’t sell it.”

To learn more about the status of cannabis legalization in Virginia and submit comments or questions to the committee, go to the state’s cannabis portal here.