Virginia governor unveils proposal to begin legal marijuana sales in 2023

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Retail sales of recreational marijuana would begin in Virginia on Jan. 1, 2023, under legislation authored by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, which in addition to ending the state’s prohibition on the drug would expunge many past criminal convictions and create a state fund to help people arrested for marijuana crimes start legal businesses.

Northam came out in favor of legalization late last year and his bill, first made public Wednesday, represents a starting point for what’s expected to be a long debate during the legislative session that begins this week.

“Marijuana prohibition has historically been based in discrimination and the impact of criminalization laws have disproportionately harmed minorities in low income communities as a result,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who is carrying the legislation in the Senate with Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria. “We’re focused on undoing those harms.”

Timeline

When Northam announced his support for legalization, he said he did not plan to rush the process, citing the experience of regulators in other states. True to his word, his legislation lays out a two-year timetable in which officials would begin drafting regulations and issuing licenses to marijuana businesses before retail sales would begin in 2023.

Until then, most of the state’s current laws governing the drug would remain in place and the drug, while currently decriminalized, would remain illegal and subject to existing criminal and civil penalties.

The decision is likely to disappoint criminal justice advocates, who have argued for an immediate end to the state’s prohibition, enforcement of which has disproportionately targeted Black Virginians.

Likewise, operators of Virginia’s tightly-controlled medical cannabis dispensaries, have been lobbying for permission to begin recreational sales this year to serve as a stop gap while regulators establish rules and begin a broader licensing process.

However, legislative analysts who studied the issue last year recommended against that approach, arguing early access to the retail market would give medical producers an unfair competitive advantage and, in any case, would be unlikely to meet anticipated demand for the drug.

Taxes and oversight

Northam proposes handing regulatory control of the new marketplace to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, which would be renamed the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Control Authority.

But unlike the state’s monopoly on the sales of liquor, in which sales are restricted to state-run retail stores, the authority’s role in the marijuana industry would be limited to developing and enforcing regulations and licensing producers, processers and retailers. Read more