Government watchdog recommends changes to Virginia’s new marijuana law weeks before legalization

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The General Assembly’s watchdog agency urged state legislators to consider changes to Virginia’s new marijuana law Monday, including one to add a misdemeanor possession charge if someone is caught with more than the legal limit on them in public.

Virginia’s marijuana legalization bill directed the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to publish a report comparing the legislation to a JLARC report released last year before it was passed.

The report, presented during JLARC’s meeting on Monday, found that 80% of the policy options and recommendations in last November’s study were implemented into the final bill. Despite that number, JLARC staff expressed concerns with certain provisions within the legislation and pushed for changes that were initially recommended.

“The public possession limits and penalties are not as graduated as we suggested,” Mark Gribbin, JLARC’s chief legislative analyst who worked on the report, told commission members.

Marijuana will be legal in Virginia for those 21 and over starting on July 1. People will be allowed to have up to an ounce in their possession but could face a $25 civil penalty if they are caught with more. The penalty for possessing more than a pound is far more severe, with those convicted possibly facing a 10-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.

“We suggest you consider establishing a misdemeanor public possession limit that’s lower than the current one-pound felony limit,” Gribbin said Monday.

Gribbin explained that other states with legalized marijuana have created misdemeanor possession charges for amounts between an ounce and a pound, typically ranging from one to two-and-half ounces.

“If you want to be on the least punitive end of the legalized states, the misdemeanor amount could be set at around two-and-half to five ounces,” he suggested.

JLARC’s 2020 study found the legal marijuana industry could generate up to $300 million in tax revenue and bring 11,000 jobs to the state. The latest report from the legislative watchdog recommends updates to the law before legal sales are slated to begin in 2024.

The Virginia Cannabis Control Authority, the regulator of the legal industry, has been tasked with establishing the equivalent possession limits for edibles, oils and other marijuana products. With the VCCA not being created until adult use and possession is legalized in July, JLARC shared concerns over the expected delay in developing those guidelines.

“What we suggest here is for VCCA to immediately implement emergency regulations to establish those equivalence limits,” Gribbin said, adding that JLARC predicts the process to move quickly and could happen “within a few weeks.”

Another recommended change from JLARC calls for the state legislature to limit the number of retail stores that Virginia’s five medical marijuana licensees can operate once legal sales are allowed. The new law permits these licensees to eventually sell marijuana and cannabis products to those without a medical card at the six dispensaries each are allowed to own.

“Given that these businesses would have a competitive advantage from being vertically integrated, we propose limiting them to half that number or three retail stores per licensee,” said Gribbin.

Following the presentation, two lawmakers on the commission gave their views on the legislation as a whole. Sen. Tommy Norment (R-James City), who made his displeasure with the measure clear when it was on the Senate floor, said it highlighted the issues with creating an omnibus bill. 

“Because of the complexity of this issue, it is all over the board. The governor put in what some have argued a right-to-work provisions. There’s a provision jumping from one ounce to a civil penalty to a felony. Clearly that needs to be, I think, readdressed and blessedly we have the opportunity through some reenactment provisions to do that.” 

Norment also called the legislation’s social equity program “a total farce,” saying the parameters for eligibility are too broad. 

Virginians seeking to qualify as a “social equity applicant” under the new law must either live in an economically distressed area, live in a high marijuana law enforcement area, be a graduate of one of Virginia’s historically Black universities or colleges, have a marijuana-related conviction or have a family member with one.

The program will give “preference in licensing” and create a loan program for those who are eligible. JLARC reported that other states experienced challenges when trying to establish eligibility criteria and suggested directing “eligibility to individuals who have actually experienced harm.”  

Virginia House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) took exemption to Norment’s assessment. Herring, who admitted the legislation is not perfect but is a step in the right direction, noted the impact a conviction can have on someone’s ability to get a job or get a business loan. 

“With respect to impacts on family members, I think it’s naïve to say that just because someone in the family has a conviction it doesn’t impact others,” Herring responded.

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