Virginia lawmakers explore an earlier start for retail marijuana sales

A group of lawmakers are exploring an expedited timeline to launch the state’s retail marijuana market, which is currently scheduled to open in January 2024. (BizSense file)

The start of marijuana retail sales in Virginia could come sooner than initially planned as lawmakers continue to discuss the ground rules for the new industry.

The commission that oversees implementation of state legislation that legalized marijuana recently created a subcommittee that will draw up recommendations on how to expedite the start of retail sales in Virginia, a milestone currently slated for January 2024.

That subcommittee of the Cannabis Oversight Commission is expected to meet in the first half of November to create the recommendations, said Henry Watkins, who is chief of staff for the commission’s chairman, Sen. Adam Ebbin.

Sen. Adam Ebbin

The Cannabis Oversight Commission created the subcommittee during a meeting earlier this month, and the question of a quicker start to retail sales comes amid other debates among lawmakers about the industry as it takes shape.

A sticking point among commission members earlier this month was how the state’s medical cannabis operators should be allowed to participate in the retail market.

The state’s four medical cannabis operators, which are currently allowed to have prescription-based dispensaries onsite at their manufacturing facilities in addition to five satellite medical dispensaries each, would be permitted to run full-on retail operations out of their dispensaries under current legislation once retail sales are enacted.

That arrangement was criticized by Sen. Jennifer McClellan during the recent meeting.

“I think there’s a tension in our equity goals if we’re giving medical licensees, who are basically incumbents, a competitive advantage,” McClellan said.

Ebbin suggested that the existing game plan for retail operations at medical operators’ dispensaries could help the market as a whole ramp up quickly, particularly if the market is opened sooner than currently planned.

Ebbin also floated the idea of recommending medical operators be allowed to sell marijuana seeds starting next July.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, a state watchdog agency, has previously suggested medical operators be limited to three retail dispensaries.

There’s also discussion among commission members about additional categories and subcategories of the business licenses needed to operate in the market and whether licensing caps should be determined by the Cannabis Control Authority rather than by legislation.

The Cannabis Control Authority was formally established earlier this year.

The subcommittee’s recommendations will be passed along to the commission, which would then forward its guidance to the General Assembly to take under consideration when it reenacts the legislation related to the creation of the legal retail market.

The commission expects to finalize what it’ll recommend to the General Assembly by December, Watkins said.

The Cannabis Control Authority Board of Directors has met twice since the authority was created and is operating on a $2.3 million budget for the current fiscal year. That includes funds for about 20 employees, Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration policy advisor, Megan Field, said at the commission’s meeting earlier this month.

The authority expects to start hiring soon, and the hunt for its first CEO is still underway, Northam administration spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in an email Monday.

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