On July 1, 2021, Virginians and cannabis enthusiasts nationwide celebrated like it was April 20th, as cannabis possession was legalized in the commonwealth. Presently, Virginia allows possession up to one ounce and for home grow up to four plants per household. Cannabis entrepreneurs also had big reason to celebrate as Virginia’s Cannabis Control Authority was announced paving the way for regulations for our retail markets set in law to begin in 2024. Since July, we have seen numerous stories about the clear issues with Virginia’s law and the desire by many to expedite the timeline for cannabis licensing. By legalizing possession and home-grow without creating a legal way for non-medicinal consumers to purchase cannabis or seeds, the law sort of creates a look the other way mentality for enforcement officials. Perhaps though, the biggest story isn’t what the law allows, but that it all could be for want given that the law requires the legislature to reenact significant portions of it 2022. So, for that reason cannabis really is on the ballot in November and the impacts on consumers and business alike hangs in the balance.
The 2021 Virginia Blueprint
Cannabis legislation was passed by what is being hailed by Virginia NORML’s Jenn Michelle Pedini as “the most pro-cannabis legislature in Virginia’s history.” In Richmond, the legislature held a rare “trifecta” of democratic leadership. The house, senate, and Governor’s mansion were all in the hands of democrats who, at least in Virginia, were more pro-cannabis. Passed along party lines, the new law included the limiting language that the major aspects of the legislation “shall not become effective unless reenacted by the 2022 Session of the General Assembly.” That one line creates a real sense of urgency for Virginia cannabis voters. If, Virginians want to keep their newly legalized cannabis and want to see a legitimized recreational market emerge as the law intends, then they will not want to sit out this November’s election.
Safe Markets Versus Illicit Markets
One of the major focusses on cannabis legalization across the country is safety. Illicit markets are inherently dangerous. Cannabis businesses are legal, or illegal are largely cash based which requires intense security measures to safeguard the cash. Without access to banks or other financial institutions, violence and threats of violence are more prevalent as robberies are a common occurrence. Further, without safety standards coming from regulations, consumers are at the mercy of their dealer. It is no secret that in places where the black market continues to be an issue the safety of the cannabis product itself is in question. States have identified crime and safety as an important and central consideration in their legislation to legalize possession and distribution. In states where cannabis has been legalized through medicinal programs, recreational or a combination thereof, crime related to cannabis has either decreased or there has not been a substantial change. Prohibitionist predictions of rampant crime increases due to legalization have thus far not come to fruition. In fact, the war on drugs has largely shown that prohibition is ineffective as a means to reduce violent drug related crime.
Virginia’s Cannabis Market Here to Stay
One way or another Virginia will always have a cannabis market. Consumers want it, and there will always be people who are ready and able to supply that market. The real question is what kind of market do Virginians want? The U.S. Cannabis Report put out by New Frontier Data showed that in 2020 “Virginia’s illicit market ranked fourth largest in the nation, encompassing roughly $1.8 billion.” Further, CATO Institute detailed how Virginia spent over $80 billion on cannabis prohibition enforcement. Consider that for a moment…Virginia spent $80 billion to stop illegal cannabis distribution, which raked in nearly $2 billion… If you’re wondering if there is market demand for legal cannabis in Virginia look no further. In preparing for this article, I spent time speaking with Jenn Michelle Pedini, who serves as the Executive Director for Virginia NORML, who put it quite simply, “cannabis prohibition only enables the illicit cannabis market and emboldens criminal activities.”
From my own perspective working with cannabis entrepreneurs who are looking to acquire licensing in Virginia, any sudden shift in the political winds could potentially spell disaster. Money is already pouring into the commonwealth in the form of land purchases and development as investors, consultants, accountants, land use and many other ancillary professionals are being hired to help develop business plans. I think it’s clear that most people looking to work in cannabis here in Virginia are operating under the assumption that what was passed into law in 2021 will largely remain law come 2024. This is not a sky is falling article at all, but it is an attempt to raise awareness that politics still matter and voting in this November’s election is important to the Virginia cannabis industry. Investors want to know they are investing into a stable market and would certainly be hesitant to look towards Virginia again in the future if we back out of our current law in a meaningful way. Virginians who want legal cannabis therefore have a choice this year because cannabis is on the ballot.
Races to Watch in Virginia
The Governor’s race is the most visible race this election cycle right now and one in which clear distinctions can be drawn between the two top candidates. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Glenn Youngkin (R) have both come out with different public remarks on cannabis. McAuliffe has come out in favor of cannabis legalization with an emphasis on social equity being an important goal of the law. Youngkin on the other hand has detailed his views that cannabis has largely failed from an industry perspective in other legalized states. Critics of Youngkin have loudly pointed out that he is wrong about the industries success as states such as California, Oregon, and Colorado have seen increased tax revenues year over year from legal cannabis sales. As of this writing, McAullife has a three point lead in the Governor’s race.
Local Politics Matter
NORML has endorsed several candidates in this year’s election in its 2021 Election Voter Guide, including Terry McAullife. Here are five races from the 100 house of delegates seats up for grabs to watch this year:
- House of Delegates District 83 (Virginia Beach City and Norfolk City) Del. Nancy Guy (D) v. Tim Anderson (R)
- Highly competitive race in a seat that saw a changing of the guard from Republican to Democrat in 2019 by only 41 votes! Guy received an A rating from NORML whereas Anderson has less favorable views on cannabis legalization.
- House District 27 (Chesterfield and Richmond) Del. Roxann Robinson (R) v. Debra Gardner (D)
- The seat has been held by a republican for over thirty years, but Robinson is seen as vulnerable in this race.
- House District 63 (Petersburg, Dinwiddie, Chesterfield) Del. Lashrecse Aird (D) v. Kim Taylor (R)
- Aird has held the seat since 2015 and is viewed as a rising star in the Virginia Democratic party, however the race is a competitive one this year.
- House District 66 (Chesterfield, Richmond, Colonial Heights) Mike Cherry (R) v. Katie Sponsler (D)
- The seat left open by former House Speaker Kirk Cox who was defeated in the Republican convention is contested and will be closely watched. Though the district has historically swayed to the right.
- House of Delegates District 10 (Loudon, Frederick, Clark) Del. Wendy Gooditis (D) v. Nick Clemente (R)
- Gooditis has held the seat since 2017, but this race is viewed as competitive.
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