Done Right, Legal Pot Could Bring Social Fairness and Opportunity to Virginia

Samer Abilmona, director of Green Leaf Medical in Richmond, holds a tray of marijuana cuttings. (Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)

Virginia owes a lot to a smokable herb.

Look no further than the ceiling of the State Capitol Rotunda to see painted depictions of golden brown leaf garlands that were essential to the founding of Virginia 400 years ago.

The Virginia Company of London, incorporated, experienced a lean period in the first few years after gaining a foothold in Jamestown. Tobacco was one of his rare successes. The crop flourished in the fertile loam and sunny summers along the James River. Across the Atlantic, demand grew insatiable for what has been called ‘joviall weed’, ‘precious stench’ and ‘hell’s cut weed,’ according to ‘Virginia: The New Dominion by historian and publisher Virginius Dabney. It remained one of the primary cash crops in Virginia throughout the 20th century.

On July 1, another smokable weed, once condemned by the facility, is expected to become legal for adult recreational use. And two and a half years later, legal commercial cultivation, processing and sale of marijuana would begin in Virginia.

The final word on it comes on Wednesday when the Virginia General Assembly is expected to pass Gov. Ralph Northam’s amendments to a bill passed in the winter legislative session that finally legalized ganja in the Old. Dominion.

Ultimately, personal use and possession as well as home cultivation of a limited number of plants will be the law. As originally passed by the House and Senate, the bill would have delayed the legalization of reefers until 2024. Civil rights advocates have argued that such a delay would only prolong the period during which black Virginians are cited for possession of the ubiquitous substance at four times the rate of whites.

The governor listened to it and modified it to go back to the date of entry into force of legalization. Its revisions allow a household to grow up to four plants for their private use, but postpones commercial pot production until 2024 to give policymakers more time to put in place the regulatory infrastructure for the budding industry. .

Its recommended changes also speed up the timeline for sealing records of past pot possession offenses and allow those convicted of marijuana felons to go to court for their deportation.

“Virginia will become the 15th state to legalize marijuana – and these changes will ensure that we do so with a focus on public safety, public health and social justice,” Northam said in a statement summarizing his amendments to the project. of law.

The United States has a long, stupid history of marijuana hysteria dating back to the depression era and the release of the unintentionally hilarious 1936 B-movie “Reefer Madness. As the left counterculture embraced it in the 1960s and 1970s, state and federal authorities responded with repression still evident today.

“It was done because they couldn’t criminalize being Black or being against the Vietnam War, but they could criminalize cannabis, and that’s what they did,” said Amber Littlejohn, Lawyer and Executive Director of Association of Minority Cannabis Companies.

It has remained so, especially in communities of color. While arrest statistics imply that cannabis use was more prevalent in these communities, anyone who has ever attended a Grateful Dead or Willie Nelson concert knows this better.

Among the discoveries of a American Civil Liberties Union Report Last year, FBI data showed that U.S. police in 2018 made more arrests for marijuana violations than all violent crimes combined.

Now the legalization in Virginia – reflecting an astonishing change for the historically conservative General Assembly – appears to have a smooth path to be enacted this week when lawmakers consider Northam’s amendments. In addition to the support of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, the governor’s amendments convinced two Republican senators, like Ned Oliver of the Mercury. reported Last week.

The legislation was born out of concerns for social equity. Not only have minorities and economically disadvantaged groups been jailed and disproportionately fined for decades, but youth jar possession arrests over otherwise harmless cases have weighed on young people vying for jobs. high level, university scholarships, security clearances and loans. Cleaning these stains from their records at least improves their chances of realizing their potential to contribute more fully to Virginia’s economy.

A less discussed benefit is the economic development potential and tax revenues the Commonwealth can derive from a robust cannabis industry.

A report last November by the General Assembly’s investigative arm, the Joint Audit and Legislative Review Committee, found that the marijuana industry could potentially create more than 18,000 jobs in Virginia.

The same report projects that the state sales tax, coupled with a 25% tax on marijuana, could, within five years of the start of commercial production and sales, generate up to $ 308 million. of income per year. A 20% tax on marijuana, according to the JLARC projects, would bring in more than $ 250 million a year.

Medical marijuana businesses are already seeing the growth potential of legal adult use in Virginia. Companies like Parallel, a global developer and distributor of cannabis products, has a head start on newcomers who want to compete in the recreational use market.

While 2024 appears to be a long wait, Virginia must act quickly to not only strengthen its regulatory authority for the cannabis industry, but also to provide opportunities for those entering the field, especially small businesses owned by. minorities and women, said Sam Schwartz, vice-president of Parallel. president of government relations.

“The most important thing right now is access to capital,” said Schwartz. “We are not allowed to have traditional banking relationships, so if you combine access to capital to be a cannabis business with the traditional challenges of accessing capital in minority communities, it is almost impossible for a minority entrepreneur to ” get the capital you need to get started. a cannabis business. “

Funding marijuana businesses is difficult because while more states legalize cannabis, it is still nominally illegal under federal law. Federally chartered banks will not make loans. Some state-chartered banks as well as venture capital and private equity firms will expand their capital, but many remain tricky, said Rebecca Gwilt, executive director of the Virginia Cannabis Industry Association and a lawyer who advises clients in the cannabis industry.

“There are very few investment banks that will play in this space because of the federal government’s stance on cannabis,” she said. “So there are… Canadian investment banks doing transactions in the United States. But there are a few, and if you don’t have access to those connections, it may be difficult for you to raise capital. “

The continued federal ban also has operational limits that prohibit operations across state borders. Richmond lobbyist Tray Adams of McGuireWoods Consulting said this creates an ineffective and confusing state-by-state patchwork of different and sometimes conflicting laws and regulatory requirements. He is pushing for Curaleaf Holdings Inc., a cannabis products company that operates 101 retail dispensaries in 23 states.

“The variety of state plans and processes really point to a potential federal resolution to the problem,” Adams said.

If what Virginia really does is about social justice, it is incumbent on state policymakers to act quickly to ensure that groups most disadvantaged by decades of harsh prohibitions share the opportunities that legalization offers, Littlejohn said. , whose organization advocates for the inclusion of the minority. entrepreneurs in the commercial marijuana industry.

Among other things, this could include state aid in the form of low or no interest start-up capital, educational resources, assistance in navigating the maze of zoning and regulatory issues as well as legal and regulatory assistance. technique for filing complex cannabis applications. business licenses – something that Littlejohn says typically exceeds $ 100,000.

“When you look at something that has targeted a group of people so directly based on race, it’s really important to try and right the wrongs of something that we keep doing wrong,” she said. .


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