Virginia lawmakers face deadline to resolve differences in marijuana legalization bill

Richmond

FILE – This April 6, 2018, file photo shows the leaves of a marijuana plant inside Ultra Health’s cultivation greenhouse in Bernalillo, N.M. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Even though the General Assembly passed bills to legalize marijuana in Virginia, state lawmakers must still iron out key differences by Saturday in order to ensure one of Gov. Ralph Northam’s legislative priorities gets to his desk.

Legalization was presented as a major agenda item for Northam and Virginia Democrats before this year’s session. With the special session wrapping up, it remains unclear whether negotiators in the Senate and House will come to an agreement on the legislation.

The Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, both under Democratic control, each passed legislation on Feb. 5 to legalize use and possession for those 21 years and older, with legal sales slated to begin Jan. 1, 2024.

While the bills had similarities, including an automatic expungement process for misdemeanor convictions and establishing the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority by July to oversee the legal industry, legislators were expecting that a conference committee negotiation would be needed to work out the final details.

The re-enactment clause in the Senate’s bill, which would require the legislature to vote again next year on specifics surrounding the regulatory structure for legal sales, is one of the sticking points in the negotiations, according to three people familiar with the committee negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

One Senate staffer told 8News that the re-enactment clause appears to be “a real priority” and doubted the legislation would get enough votes to pass without one. What a vote next legislative session could look like, especially with all 100 seats in the House of Delegates up for grabs in November, has previously raised concerns for supporters of legalization.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws chapter in Virginia, said earlier this month that the progress made towards legalization could be in jeopardy if a less supportive state legislature is sworn in next year.

“Virginia didn’t take this lightly,” Pedini said in an interview Friday, noting the numerous studies and reports conducted before session. “We knew it was going to be one of the heaviest lifts in decades.”

Lawmakers called for a study from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission into how Virginia could legalize and regulate the legal industry. The JLARC report found annual tax revenues from the market could bring in up to $300 million and the industry could help create 11,000 jobs to the commonwealth.

“Lawmakers had every resource to reach a compromise,” Pedini added. “If they don’t pass it, it won’t be because lack of research or lack of support.”

When asked whether progress on legalization could be held up if a version with a re-enactment clause passes this year and is rejected next year, state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), the Senate bill’s patron, told 8News’ Jackie DeFusco that it’s still being negotiated.

An effort to have voters decide on legalization with a non-binding ballot referendum was added to the Senate’s version, another key difference causing contention during the negotiations, two people familiar with internal debate told 8News.

With the special session expected to end Monday, lawmakers have until Saturday to finish their work on legislation, giving those in the conference committee little time to agree on the legalization bill. Two lawmakers admitted Friday they were unsure whether it would even pass to DeFusco.

While there are still sticking points, conference committee negotiators appear to have settled on a timetable for simple possession to be allowed.

The House’s version, formally introduced by House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), would maintain the $25 civil penalty enacted with decriminalization until 2024. The Senate’s bill would allow for simple possession, up to an ounce, without any penalty starting in July.

According to the three people familiar with the negotiations, those in the conference committee seem poised to get rid of the civil penalty for possession when legal sales are up and running in 2024, not this July. Negotiations are still ongoing, so nothing has been set, but one person familiar with the discussions told 8News “the [Northam] administration was never going to authorize July.”

“I don’t think that’s the breaking point,” the Senate staffer who discussed ongoing negotiations said of the timeline to legalize simple possession.

Months after the JLARC report, Gov. Northam laid out a proposal to legalize marijuana sales by 2023 as one of his priorities for the 2021 session. Northam’s administration had proposed establishing a regulatory system monitored by Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority and a seven member Cannabis Control Advisory Board within the agency to oversee a legal industry. 

A Senate committee approved a recommendation from a marijuana subcommittee adding an amendment to establish a new regulatory agency, the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority, and mandatory quarterly progress updates. Lawmakers agreed with experts who said that creating a brand new agency would delay Northam’s goal, prompting both bills to push back the timeline until 2024.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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