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Youngkin 'not interested' in legalizing recreational marijuana sales

The sale of recreational marijuana in Virginia will remain prohibited so long as Gov. Glenn Youngkin is in the Executive Mansion, members of his administration said last week.

Marijuana sales were expected to begin in 2024 after former Gov. Ralph Northam signed the 2021 Cannabis Control Act. Provisions in that law, however, required additional action from state lawmakers that was blocked by Republicans in the House of Delegates in 2022 and again in 2023.

“Governor Youngkin has stated that he is not interested in any further moves towards legalization of adult recreational use marijuana,” said Joseph Guthrie, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, during a Virginia Cannabis Public Health Advisory Council meeting last week. “So I wouldn’t expect that during his administration.”

This doesn’t mean that Youngkin plans to repeal the Cannabis Control Act.

However, the sale of recreational marijuana and marijuana products, plants and seeds which the law said “shall be permitted on and after January 1, 2024,” is not to be; there are no current licensing and regulatory provisions that would even allow existing dispensaries to begin selling recreational products.

The 2021 legislation, which also decriminalized possession, consumption and personal cultivation of marijuana, included reenactment clauses in multiple sections. That means that the General Assembly had to approve additional parts of the law in a subsequent legislative session, in this case specifically provisions on licensing.

In the past two years, bills that tackle licensing, regulatory authorities and the establishment of a retail market have been killed by the Republican-controlled House. And without those provisions, dispensaries and retailers won’t be able to sell recreational marijuana, even though sales technically become legal in 2024, according to Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project lobbying group.

“The law as it stands was internally ambiguous,” O’Keefe told The Daily Progress. “There was language that said sales are legal. But all of the details about taxation, equity and licensing haven’t moved forward. The governor made it clear that it wasn’t a priority of his.”

For several years, Youngkin has avoided “getting involved in this important policy debate that needs leadership,” Sen. Adam Ebbin, a Northern Virginia Democrat, told The Daily Progress. Ebbin was the chair patron for Senate bills in 2022 and 2023 that would have successfully established a retail market for recreational marijuana. “[Youngkin] seems to avoid trying to take public positions on issues that he knows he’s out of step with the public on.”

Youngkin told Virginia Business in December 2021 he is “not against” commercialization and has no intention of overturning the Cannabis Control Act. He later told Virginia Public Media in February 2023 that “I’ve looked to [lawmakers] for sending me bills,” but declined to say if he would sign legislation on the issue.

That is, until last week, when an appointed member of his administration said that Youngkin was “not interested” in moving forward with recreational marijuana.

So Virginians lining up at dispensaries without a medical marijuana card on Jan. 1, 2024? They’ll have to try again in a few years — likely once Youngkin is no longer governor in 2026.

Youngkin’s office did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment from The Daily Progress.

“I don’t expect Governor Youngkin to sign a reasonable adult-use regulatory bill, which is a shame, because adults deserve the ability to have a tested, safe product,” Ebbin said. “The governor ought to want to keep these things out of the hands of minors by allowing for adult sales that are carefully and safely regulated. And the governor should want to collect the taxes due on adult use of cannabis, rather than proliferate a black market.”

Opposing an adult-use retail sales bill is an “active choice to continue emboldening Virginia’s illicit market,” according to JM Pedini, executive director of the Virginia chapter at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“By failing to take legislative action, lawmakers are electing to continue driving consumers to the unregulated, underground market,” Pedini wrote to The Daily Progress in an email. “If public safety is a priority of the Youngkin administration, then legislation enacting legal access and providing regulatory oversight ought to be a top issue in the 2024 session.”

It is possible someone could file suit and point out the law’s ambiguity, which has happened in similar situations in other states, according to O’Keefe. Medical dispensaries could decide to sell to an adult, and if acquitted after litigation, could “force the hand” of legislators to set up a retail market.

“But who’s gonna want to take that risk? It’s very much a gray area,” O’Keefe said.

The only other way to set up legal sales in Virginia would be for Democrats to take control of the house and the governorship, O’Keefe said. Or, for leadership to have a “change of heart” in the remaining two years of Youngkin’s tenure.

“I think that probably the only way it would happen is if [Governor Youngkin] didn’t stand in the way,” O’Keefe said. “But I don’t know if it’s very likely that we would see that kind of turnaround.”


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