Update: On April 21, 2021, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed the legislation into law, making Virginia the first state int he American South to legalize adult use cannabis.
On April 7, 2021, legislators in Virginia finally came to an agreement for their adult use cannabis legalization plan. Back in February of this year, lawmakers passed a bill to legalize adult use cannabis with a launch date of 2024, but Governor Ralph Northam wanted to move quicker than that.
Last week, Gov. Northam issued a number of amendments to the legalization bills (Senate Bill 1406 and House Bill 2312) that essentially tapers the time frame of legalization to July of this year. With the legislature approving those amendments yesterday, the state of Virginia has now finalized their legalization plans, setting in motion the launch of the very first legal adult use cannabis market in the American South.
Beginning July 1, 2021, Virginia will allow adults to possess up to an ounce of cannabis and up to four plants per household. The commercial cannabis market, and the regulatory framework accompanying it, will be set to legalize sales July 1, 2024.
The bill establishes the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority as the regulatory body overseeing the legal cannabis market. A five-member Board of Directors in that agency will develop and issue regulations and licenses. According to the bill, the Board can set the number of licenses, with a maximum of 400 retailers, 25 wholesalers, 450 cultivators and 60 manufacturers, aside from any medical cannabis and hemp processing license already issued. The Board is also in charge of licensing testing labs.
Vertical integration is not permitted under Virginia’s new legalization plan, but all of the medical cannabis licensees in the state are already vertically integrated. According to the bill, they can keep their vertical integration for a small fee of $1 million and after they submit a diversity, equity and inclusion plan.
In addition to Virginia’s normal 6% sales tax, a state tax of 21% is added to retail sales of adult use cannabis, excluding medical dispensaries. Local municipalities are allowed to issue up to 3% in additional taxes.
According to a press release published by the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the House Judiciary Committee approved the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act by a 24-10 vote. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced The MORE Act (HR 2884), which now has 55 cosponsors. This marks the first time in history that a congressional committee approved a bill to legalize cannabis.
“Today’s vote marks a turning point for federal cannabis policy, and is truly a sign that prohibition’s days are numbered,” says Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA. “Thanks to the diligent efforts of advocates and lawmakers from across the political spectrum, we’ve seen more progress in this Congress than ever before.”
A little bit of background on the bill: The MORE Act, if passed, would decriminalize cannabis completely on a federal level. It would remove it from the Controlled Substances Act, not reschedule it. If the bill were to pass, it would expunge all prior federal cannabis convictions. The bill provides for the establishment of the “Cannabis Justice Office,” which would develop a. program for reinvesting resources in those communities most affected by the war on drugs. That program would be funded by a 5% tax on cannabis commerce in states that have legal regulatory frameworks.
The bill also would allow the Small Business Administration to provide loans, grants and other support to cannabis-related businesses, as well as support state equity licensing programs. Through the bill, physicians in the Veteran Affairs system would be given permission to recommend medical cannabis to patients as well.
“Supermajority public support for legalization, increasing recognition of the devastating impacts of prohibition on marginalized communities and people of color, and the undeniable success of state cannabis programs throughout the country are all helping to build momentum for comprehensive change in the foreseeable future,” says Smith.
According to NCIA, there was a recent amendment to the MORE Act that includes language from the Realizing Equitable & Sustainable Participation in Emerging Cannabis Trades (RESPECT) Resolution introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). That resolution is based on the white paper that NCIA’s Policy Council published back in March of 2019.
“There is still much work to be done, including the establishment of sound federal regulations for cannabis products,” says Smith. “This vote brings us one step closer to ending the disaster that is prohibition and repairing the harms it has caused while we continue the discussion in Congress about how to best regulate cannabis at the federal level. We urge lawmakers to move forward with this necessary bill without delay.”
Good news came to patients using medical cannabis in Arizona earlier this week: Lawmakers in Arizona unanimously passed SB1494 through the state’s House and Senate, the bill requiring mandatory lab testing for medical cannabis products. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey is expected to sign the bill and has ten days to do so.
When Governor Ducey signs the bill into law it will mark the first time since the state legalized medical cannabis in 2011 that a measure to protect patient safety via lab testing will be implemented. According to the bill, beginning November 1, 2020, all cannabis products shall be tested prior to sales “to determine unsafe levels of microbial contamination, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, growth regulators and residual solvents and confirm the potency of the marijuana to be dispensed,” (Page 6, Section 36-2803).
The bill requires dispensaries to provide test results to patients immediately upon request. Dispensaries need to display a sign notifying patients of their right to see “certified independent third-party laboratory test results for marijuana and marijuana products for medical use,” according to the text of the bill (Page 7, Section 36-2803.01).“There will have to be some serious planning, but other states have achieved this and we can too.”
Under the new bill, the Arizona Department of Health Services will adopt rules to certify and regulate labs, establishing requirements like health and safety protocols, mandatory quality assurance program and standards, chain of custody and sampling policies, adequate records, accreditation, proficiency testing, among other requirements (Page 6-7, Section 36-2803).
Ryan Treacy, co-founder of the Arizona Cannabis Laboratory Association (ACLA) and CEO/Founder of C4 Laboratories, says this is a major turning point for Arizona’s cannabis industry. “We have been devoid of regulations with regard to testing the entirety of the program since it was legalized; This will be a significant change,” says Treacy. “Now patients can make sure they are getting a safe and clean product and getting exactly what they paid for.”
For those in the know when it comes to cannabis testing in the United States, the new requirements will look very similar to other states with testing requirements. One particularly unique aspect of the new program, however, is the establishment of a “Medical Marijuana Testing Advisory Council,” made up of stakeholders representing different interests in Arizona’s cannabis industry. Members of the council will include representatives from dispensaries, labs, cultivators, concentrate producers, edibles producers, as well as registered patients, caregivers, a representative from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, a licensed health care provider and “any other members deemed necessary by the director,” reads the text of the bill (page 16, Section 36-2821).
“Other states like California have complained about detection limits, while Arizona is taking a unique approach with an advisory council with stakeholders in the cannabis industry,” says Treacy. “So that when the Department of Health Services promulgates rules, they are taking into account the challenges in the cannabis industry specifically. We have a chance to do this right and avoid pitfalls we’ve seen in other states.”
One problem worth mentioning for Arizona’s cannabis industry: Dispensaries have not been required to test products for patients since medical cannabis was legalized back in 2011. That means many producers could be very used to operating procedures that don’t account for lab testing. With mandatory lab testing, some producers may be behind the curve when it comes to mitigating contamination.
According to Treacy, this could disrupt the supply chain a little bit. “When testing becomes mandatory in November 2020, dispensaries will need a full panel of tests performed on their samples,” says Treacy. “With the entire market now required to complete a full panel in depth analysis on each product, product testing will become a more time-consuming stop in the supply chain. So companies will need to work that into their plan to meet regulation requirements to prevent a bottleneck and maintain patients’ access to their cannabis medicine.”
Arizona has a chance to prevent that type of bottleneck seen in states that implemented testing requirements, like California for example. “When you have a habitual history of not testing products, it can be very hard to change, which adds to Arizona’s challenges,” says Treacy. “We need to make sure this does not affect access for patients and the ability of the industry to continue to flourish and grow.”
While Treacy thinks the transition will be difficult for some, it’s absolutely necessary for Arizona’s patients to access clean and safe medicine. “There will have to be some serious planning, but other states have achieved this and we can too.”
As of today, Arizona is the only state in the country that has legalized medical cannabis but does not require producers to test their medical cannabis. States throughout the country that legalize medical cannabis routinely implement regulations that require third-party, independent lab testing to protect patient and consumer safety. Arizona legalized medical cannabis for a number of qualifying conditions back in 2011, but still has no measure like other states to protect patient safety.
Lawmakers in Arizona now have the opportunity to change that with SB1494, which passed unanimously through the state’s Senate back in March of 2019. According to the Arizona Cannabis Laboratory Association (ACLA), the bill awaits action in the House of Representatives. The ACLA says in a press release that “supporters of the bill are calling on lawmakers to move on a bill that unanimously passed in the Senate earlier this year.” The bill would require producers to use independent, third-party labs to test cannabis for things like harmful toxins and molds.
According to Ryan Treacy, co-founder of the ACLA and CEO/Founder of C4 Laboratories, the ACLA was formed for a few important reasons: “We feel it is very important that we encourage and cultivate a professional and collaborative rapport among the reputable Arizona cannabis labs,” says Treacy. “So that we can call upon the collective groups’ years of experience to help provide insight and suggestions on how we as a group can insure the most accurate and consistent results for our clients throughout the state and ultimately their patients.” Treacy went on to add that it is particularly important their collective voice be heard at the State Capitol as lawmakers work towards passing SB 1494.
“There isn’t any reason to wait for someone to get sick before the legislature passes this bipartisan bill. Let’s get it done!”George Griffeth, President of the ACLA, says there is a sense of urgency in passing this bill before the voters decide on legalizing recreational adult-use cannabis next year. “Everyone agrees that now is the time to be proactive to protect patients from unsafe contaminants,” says Griffeth. “Currently 61 tons of medical marijuana is consumed by patients and many believe that the number of people using the medicine will continue to grow. With a ballot initiative related to the recreational use of marijuana facing voters next year, Arizona must act now to make sure standards are in place.”
They say the bill has bipartisan support and many stakeholders in Arizona’s cannabis industry express support for it as well. For Ryan Treacy, he is worried about patients consuming harmful chemicals and toxins. “My colleagues and I are deeply concerned that more than two-hundred thousand people who use medical marijuana could be inadvertently exposing themselves to toxic chemicals, E. Coli, Salmonella or mold,” says Treacy. “There isn’t any reason to wait for someone to get sick before the legislature passes this bipartisan bill. Let’s get it done!”
Treacy says this bill is particularly difficult to pass because the original measure to legalize medical cannabis was a ballot initiative. That means the bill needs 75% support in both the House and the Senate in order to amend the original measure. “The passing of this bill would be a huge win for the patients and will help to ensure honesty and transparency for those that operate in the current medical cannabis program here in AZ,” says Treacy. “This testing bill is also written with legislative intent to cover any and all future adult use or recreational use legislative laws or ballot initiatives. We hope to have a final verdict on this bill by end of this week or early next.”
On Thursday, January 4th, the Vermont House passed this bill, sending it to the Senate for concurrence. Now that the Senate has passed the bill and Gov. Scott is expected to sign it into law, it is beginning to look like Vermont will be the first state to legalize recreational cannabis through the legislature, which is a monumental accomplishment.
This could also be an important milestone for the East Coast, as legislatures in New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Delaware are seriously eyeing legalization bills as well. New Hampshire lawmakers in the state’s House approved a similar bill recently.
Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, sees this as a massive win for the legalization movement. “Vermont is poised to make history by becoming the first state to legalize marijuana cultivation and possession legislatively, rather than by ballot initiative,” says Simon. “We applaud lawmakers for heeding the calls of their constituents and taking this important step toward treating marijuana more like alcohol.”
H. 511, the bill the Vermont Senate just approved, would eliminate penalties for possession of up to one ounce of cannabis and remove penalties for having two mature plants and four immature plants. A task force appointed by the governor will work on a report to investigate how the state should tax and regulate sales by December of 2018.
On Election Day in November, two major states in the Northeast legalized recreational cannabis: Maine and Massachusetts. It seems that a handful of other states in the region are looking to legalize recreational cannabis now that their neighbors have done so.
In New Hampshire, a bipartisan bill was introduced on January 4th to establish “a commission to study the legalization, regulation, and taxation of marijuana.” The commission formed by House Bill 215 aims to “study the experiences of states that have or are in the process of legalizing and regulating the recreational use of marijuana by adults, with particular attention to be given to the ways the changes in marijuana laws in Maine and Massachusetts, as well as Canada, impact our state,” the bill states. Notably, the bill provides for a representative from the Marijuana Policy Project to be a member of the committee.
New Hampshire Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn (D) says he plans to sponsor a recreational legalization bill separate from House Bill 215. According to the New Hampshire Union Leader, Woodburn would work with lawmakers and stakeholders to set a timeline and regulatory framework.
In Connecticut, a number of lawmakers have sponsored bills this session that would legalize recreational cannabis. Senate President Martin Looney (D) filed a bill that would legalize, regulate and tax cannabis, with the tax revenue going to the state’s general fund, according to the New Haven Register. State Rep. Melissa Ziobron (R) introduced a piece of legislation that would legalize adult use over the age of 21. Lawmakers are optimistic that with Massachusetts legalizing it, perhaps the outcome will be different than previous failed attempts to push cannabis legalization.
Lawmakers in Rhode Island told reporters they want to be the first state to legalize recreational cannabis via the state legislature, rather than a ballot initiative, the most common path to legalization for other states. Sen. Joshua Miller and Rep. Scott Slater of Rhode Island, both Democrats, plan to introduce a legalization bill, the seventh year in a row that such a bill has been introduced in the state. They are also hopeful that after Massachusetts’ legalized it in November, they will have more success this time around. “Our constituents think it is time for lawmakers to pass this legislation, and we should listen to them,” says Miller. “If we fail to pass the bill this year, we will lose significant ground to Massachusetts.” Their bill would tack on a 23% tax on cannabis sales.
In each state’s case, lawmakers are keeping a close eye on Massachusetts and Maine’s regulations and tracking their progress. While the bills in the state legislatures are nascent in their journey to becoming law, the important takeaway is that geographic proximity to states with legalized cannabis is a catalyst for reform in New England.
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