In a very interesting chain of events, the Northeast is legalizing adult use cannabis at a rapid pace in 2021. The incremental progress is similar to the history of legalization in the western United States and the events leading up to 2016.
In Rhode Island, senators approved Senate Bill 568 and now heads to the House where a legislative session ends in less than a week. While it is doubtful that representatives will be able to get it done before the end of the month, it is entirely possible that they could pass the bill and legalize cannabis before the end of this year.
With the signing of the Cannabis Control Act (the Act) on April 21, 2021, Virginia became the first southern state to legalize adult use cannabis and just the fourth state to do so through the legislature. Legalizing adult use cannabis through the legislature, as opposed to through the ballot box, is not the typical route states have followed up to now. Eleven of the sixteen states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult use cannabis through the use of ballot measures. Virginia joins Vermont, Illinois, New York and New Mexico (which legalized after Virginia) as one of the few states that have gone the legislative route. Under Governor Northam’s administration, the path to legalization was swift, taking less than four months from introduction to passage.
Governor Northam added amendments to the already passed Senate Bill 1406 and the General Assembly voted to approve those amendments, with the Lieutenant Governor breaking the tie in the Senate’s vote. Upon signing, Governor Northam called the law a step towards “building a more equitable and just Virginia and reforming our criminal justice system to make it more fair.” This message and the opportunities to promote social equity through a legal cannabis industry have been consistent points of advocacy made by supporters as the bill advanced to becoming law.
Prior to the Governor’s amendments, the Act under consideration set July 1, 2024 as the date on which both legal possession and adult use sales would begin. The Governor decided to accelerate the date for legal possession to July 1 of this year, a decision believed to have been influenced by data showing that Black Virginians were more than three times as likely to be cited for possession, even after simple possession was decriminalized in the state a year prior. The regulated adult use market is still set to begin making sales on July 1, 2024; however, it remains possible that this date could be advanced through the legislature in the meantime. Nevertheless, Virginia is on track to becoming the first southern state with an operating regulated commercial cannabis market.
Creating an Administrative Structure for the Adult Use Program
This sweeping fifty-page law creates the Cannabis Control Authority to regulate the cultivation, manufacture, wholesale and retail sale of cannabis and cannabis product. The Act further lays the groundwork for licensing market participants and regulating appropriate use of cannabis; defining local control; testing, labeling, packaging and advertising of cannabis and cannabis products; and taxation. The Act also contains changes to the criminal laws of the Commonwealth. Companion to the Act are new laws addressing the testing, labeling and packaging of smokable hemp products and manufacturing of edible cannabis products. Additionally, the Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board was created to address the impact of economic divestment, violence and criminal justice responses to community and individual needs through scholarships and grants.
While persons 21 years or older may possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to four plants for personal use per household beginning on July 1, 2021, there are a host of regulations to be written in order to regulate the adult use market. These regulations will be the devil in the details of how the regulated market will work. Regardless, the Cannabis Control Act does establish the framework for adult use cannabis that is unique to Virginia and designed to promote and encourage participation from people and communities disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition and enforcement.
The Cannabis Control Authority (CCA) will consist of a Board of Directors, the Cannabis Public Health Advisory Council, the Chief Executive Officer and employees. The Board will have five members appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the legislature, each with the possibility of serving two consecutive five-year terms. The Board is tasked with creating and enforcing regulations under which retail cannabis and cannabis products are possessed, sold, transported, distributed, and delivered. It is expected that the Board will begin discussing regulations next year and that applications for licenses for cannabis cultivation facilities, manufacturing facilities, cannabis testing facilities, wholesalers, and retail stores will begin to be accepted in 2023. Importantly, a Business Equity and Diversity Support Team, led by a Social Equity Liaison, and the Equity Reinvestment Board, led by the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, are to contribute to a plan to promote and encourage participation in the industry by people from disproportionately impacted communities.
Regulating Participation in the Market
The Act empowers the Board to establish a robust and diverse marketplace with many entry opportunities for market participants. Up to 450 cultivation licenses, 60 manufacturing licenses for the production of retail cannabis products, 25 wholesaler licenses and 400 licenses for retail stores can be granted. These numbers do not include the four permits granted to pharmaceutical processors (entities that cultivate and dispense medical cannabis) under the Commonwealth’s medical program.
In addition to the sheer number of licenses that can be granted, the Act devises a unique approach to addressing concerns of a concentration of licenses in too few hands and a market dominated by large multi-state operators. At the same time, it sets up a mechanism to capitalize two cannabis equity funds intended to benefit persons, families and communities historically and disproportionately targeted and affected by drug enforcement through grants, scholarships and loans. Over-concentration and market dominance concerns are addressed by limiting a person to holding an equity interest in no more than one cultivation, manufacturing, wholesaler, retail or testing facility license. This eliminates the ability of companies to be vertically integrated from cultivation through retail sales operations. However, there are two exceptions to the impediment to vertical integration. First, the Board is authorized to develop regulations that permit small businesses to be vertically integrated and ensure that all licensees have an equal and meaningful opportunity to participate in the market. These regulations will be closely scrutinized by those looking to enter Virginia’s regulated market once they are proposed. Qualifying small businesses could benefit substantially from the economic advantages commensurate with being vertically integrated, assuming they have the access to the capital needed to achieve integration and operate successfully. The second exception allows permitted pharmaceutical processors and registered industrial hemp processors to hold multiple licenses if they pay $1 million to the Board (to be allocated to job training, the equity loan fund or equity reinvestment fund) and submit a diversity, equity and inclusion plan for approval and implementation. Consequently, Virginia is attempting to fund, in part, its ambitious social equity programs by monetizing the opportunity for these processors to participate vertically in the adult use market.
Those devilish details of how this market will function, and how onerous compliance obligations will be, will emanate from those yet to be proposed regulations covering many areas and subject matters including:
Outdoor cultivation by cultivation facilities;
A testing program;
An application process;
Packaging and labeling requirements;
Maximum THC level for retail products (not to exceed 5 mg per serving or 50 mg per package for edible products);
Record retention requirements;
Criteria for evaluating social equity license applications based on certain ownership standards;
Licensing preferences for qualified social equity applicants;
Low interest loan program standards;
Personal cultivation guidelines; and
Outdoor advertising restrictions.
Needless to say, the CCA Board has a lot work ahead in order to issue reasonable regulations that will carry out the dictates in the Act and encourage the development of a well-functioning marketplace delivering meaningful social equity opportunities.
Much work needs to be done before July 1, 2024 to prepare for its debutThe application process for the five categories of licenses will be developed by the Board, along with application fee and annual license fee amounts. It is not clear how substantial these fees will be and what effect they will have on the ability of less-well-capitalized companies and individuals to compete in the market. The Act dictates that licenses are deemed nontransferable from person to person or location to location. However, it is not entirely clear that changes in ownership will be prohibited. The Act contemplates that changes in ownership will be permitted, at least as to retail store licensees, through a reapplication process. Perhaps the forthcoming regulations will add clarity to the transferability of licenses and address the use of management services agreements as a potential workaround to the limitations in license ownership.
Certain requirements particular to certain license-types are worthy of highlighting. For example, there are two classes of cultivation licenses. Class A cultivation licenses authorize cultivation of a certain number of plants within a certain number of square feet to be determined by the Board. Interestingly, Class B licenses are for cultivation of low total THC (no more than 1%) cannabis. Several requirements specific to retail stores are noteworthy. Stores cannot exceed 1,500 square feet, or make sales through drive-through windows, internet-based sales platforms or delivery services. Prohibitive local ordinances are not allowed; however, localities can petition for a referendum on the question of whether retail stores should be prohibited in their locality. Retail stores are allowed to sell immature plants and seek to support the home growers, an allowance that is fairly unique among the existing legal adult-use states.
Taxing Cannabis Sales
Given the perception that regulated cannabis markets add to state coffers, it is little surprise that Virginia’s retail market will be subject to significant taxes. The taxing system is straightforward and not complicated by a taxing regime related to product weight or THC content, for example. There is a 21% tax on retail sales by stores, in addition to the current sales tax rates. In addition, localities may, by ordinance, impose a 3% tax on retail sales. These taxes could result in a retail tax of approximately 30%.
Changes to Criminal Laws
Changes to the criminality of cannabis will have long lasting effects for many Virginians. These changes include:
Fines of no more than $25 and participation in substance abuse or education programs for illegal purchases by juveniles or persons 18 years or older;
Prohibition of warrantless searches based solely on the odor of cannabis;
Automatic expungement of records for certain former cannabis offenses;
Prohibition of “gifting” cannabis in exchange for nominal purchases of some other product;
Prohibition of consuming cannabis or cannabis products in public; and
Prohibition of consumption by drivers or passengers in a motor vehicle being driven, with consumption being presumed if cannabis in the passenger compartment is not in the original sealed manufacturer’s container.
These changes, and others, represent a balancing of public safety with lessons learned from the effects of the war on drugs.
The Act contains myriad other noteworthy provisions. For example, the Board must develop, implement and maintain a seed-to-sale tracking system for the industry. Plants being grown at home must be tagged with the grower’s name and driver’s license or state ID number. Licenses may be stripped from businesses that do not remain neutral while workers attempt to unionize. However, this provision will not become effective unless approved again by the legislature next year. Banks and credit unions are protected under state law for providing financial services to licensed businesses or for investing any income derived from the providing of such services. This provision is intended to address the lack of access to banking for cannabis businesses due to the federal illegality of cannabis by removing any perceived state law barriers for banks and credit unions to do business with licensed cannabis companies.
The adult use cannabis industry is coming to Virginia. Much work needs to be done before July 1, 2024 to prepare for its debut. However, the criminal justice reforms and commitment to repairing harms related to past prohibition of cannabis are soon to be a present-day reality. Virginia is the first Southern state to take the path towards legal adult use cannabis. It is unlikely to be the last.
In doing so, it opened the door to an industry that many experts agree could exceed $7 billion annually, once the market is fully established. That’s potential the cannabis market hasn’t seen since Washington became the first Pacific state to legalize adult use cannabis, almost 10 years ago (followed shortly after by Colorado, then Oregon in 2014 and California in 2016).
Unfortunately, the leaders of this great country have yet to follow suit, and cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. For those in the cannabis market, this means that state-licensed cannabis businesses must cultivate and sell their products within the confines of the state in which they are licensed. Nothing can cross state lines. Even if a business is licensed in both Vermont and New York, it can’t ship product from one state to the other without running afoul of federal legislation. Most in the East Coast cannabis market view this as a negative.
While it certainly makes things more difficult, a small group of forward-thinking investors and entrepreneurs see this for what it really is: an opportunity to get in on the ground floor and establish state-specific grow operations and other supply-chain waypoints, where none or few currently exist. Think of the current state of the East Coast cannabis market as a beachhead. Right now, the industry is defined by state lines. But when the federal government finally legalizes adult use cannabis from coast to coast—and it’s only a matter of time before it does—those state lines will essentially disappear. When they do, the beachheads established now will become the infrastructure for the entire Eastern seaboard.
Take Virginia, for example. It shares its border with five states that have legalized medical cannabis but have yet to cross the bridge into adult use sales (West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina). A Virginia-based grow operation built now has the potential to serve not just those five states but other contiguous markets including Pennsylvania, Ohio, South Carolina, and even Alabama, Georgia and Indiana. A relatively small investment now could pay huge dividends in just a few years, when the market literally blows wide open.
It’s this incredible potential that makes the rise of the East Coast cannabis market one of the most important developments in the last five years. And while the potential scale of grow operations and other cannabis businesses is certainly essential to the conversation, let’s not forget that “niche products” within the East Coast cannabis market are still very much up for grabs.
If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that consumers are willing to pay a premium for high-quality, organically grown cannabis. Both new and long-time cannabis enthusiasts will choose — even demand — high-quality, organically grown cannabis that looks, smells and tastes fresh and doesn’t rely on harmful fertilizers, heavy metals or pesticides. They’re also enthusiastic about supporting brands that have a commitment to sustainable, eco-friendly operations.
It’s very much like the current trends we see in the grocery store aisles. Manufacturers and consumers alike are seeing the value of “whole foods.” After decades of relying on heavily processed fare, both suppliers and end-users are benefiting from higher-quality ingredients. Consumers want to know what’s in the stuff they’re putting into their bodies. When it comes to cannabis, they want to know that what they’re taking to alleviate their anxiety doesn’t include harmful chemicals. This demand has the capacity to push revenue even higher.
And when the dam finally breaks and businesses can ship product from state to state, the idea is for growers to be well-positioned geographically to become suppliers of high-quality, organically grown cannabis, for every state east of the Mississippi.
Cannabis businesses in states such as Colorado have had the past decade to prepare for the coming boom, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to join the party. The rise of the East Coast market parallels what Colorado and the other Pacific states experienced in the early-to-mid teens—the potential to become a very real industry, with huge capacity for growth and profit. Get in on that action now!
The East Coast cannabis market—and, indeed, the entire U.S. market—also sits on the verge of another game-changing trend: following in the footsteps of other markets and realizing sooner rather than later that high-quality, organically grown, eco-friendly cannabis is the next stage of the game. Few investors and entrepreneurs see that right now, but the astute businessperson can capitalize on both trends now and position themselves and their businesses for huge returns in the very near future. The rise of the East Coast cannabis market makes that a very real possibility.
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 earlier in October, Metrc has won the seed-to-sale traceability software contract for West Virginia. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, Bureau for Public Health, Office of Medical Cannabis (OMC) made the announcement on October 21.
According to that press release, the main focus for the state’s traceability program is “helping OMC regulators ensure no illicit cannabis products are sold in the medical cannabis market, and also that no legal medical cannabis products are sold unlawfully.”
Regulators in West Virginia are still on schedule to open the medical cannabis market as soon as next year, according to Jason Frame, OMC director. “This is an important step to make certain medical cannabis is available only to West Virginians with serious medical conditions and to prevent diversion of products in West Virginia,” says Frame. “While the COVID-19 pandemic has put many industries across the country on hold, we’re proud to say that it has not stopped West Virginia from meeting its deadlines and laying the groundwork for a safe, regulated medical cannabis market.”
Regulators at the OMC are still working on scoring processing and retail license applications. The OMC says they will begin the process of issuing patient cards in the spring of 2021.
In a press release published last week, the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA) announced that they have successfully accredited East Coast Cannalytics (ECC) to ISO/IEC 17025:2017. ECC Labs, based in Blacksburg, Virginia, is an analytical and microbial testing lab.
The news is rather timely given Virginia’s recent efforts to reform their cannabis laws. Earlier this year, the state passed legislation legalizing medical cannabis and the very first dispensary in the state opened its doors in Bristol, VA last week.
According to Becky Hobden, CEO of ECC, their mission is to support the rapidly growing cannabis industry in Virginia and the greater Southeast. “ECC is thrilled to be ISO/IEC 17025 accredited! In the cannabis industry ISO/IEC 17025 is a beacon for labs that have rigorously validated methods and hold the highest standards for quality,” says Hobden. “As a leading cannabis lab in the southeast, we are honored to work with A2LA and demonstrate that we meet the quality standards set forth in ISO/IEC 17025. Thank you!”
At the outset of 2020, the cannabis industry appeared poised for a series of incremental changes: a number of states were considering decriminalization and legalization measures, and support was growing for federal legislation allowing cannabis businesses access to banks and financial services. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which disrupted state legislative sessions (and legislative priorities), obstructed signature gathering for ballot initiatives, and reshuffled federal priorities. However, despite all of these changes, the cannabis industry has seen significant developments across the country. Beyond of course the many challenges and losses brought by the pandemic and its aftermath, in some ways, it may prove a boon for the industry.
Legalization and Decriminalization
Currently around a dozen states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, while just under two dozen states allow use of medicinal cannabis. With support for legalization measures steadily growing in most states, a number of major states seemed poised to pass legislation legalizing recreational cannabis, including large potential markets in the Northeast such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. And in many other states, advocacy groups were well underway gathering signatures to qualify legalization measures for the November 2020 ballot. When the pandemic hit, however, state legislatures largely suspended their normal operations, and signature gatherers were stymied by stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements.
Despite these major obstacles, legalization and decriminalization legislation has continued to move forward in a number of states, and still others will have legalization referenda on the ballot for November’s election. Perhaps more important than these initiatives themselves are the diverse states that are moving toward loosening of restrictions around cannabis: rather than being limited to a handful of especially liberal states, cannabis advocates are seeing tangible progress is every geographic area, among states whose political leanings span the spectrum.
While the Northeast corridor had planned to undertake legalization efforts in a coordinated fashion this year, those results were put on hold given the seriousness of initial COVID-19 outbreaks in the greater New York area. However, the New Jersey General Assembly nevertheless passed decriminalization legislation, though the matter has not yet cleared the New Jersey Senate, and the appetite for full-scale legalization remains strong there, with a ballot initiative going directly to voters in advance of the New Jersey Legislature considering the issue. The Commonwealth of Virginia enacted decriminalization legislation also, and a legislative caucus in Virginia has pledged to introduce recreational legalization legislation this summer when Virginia convenes a special legislative session. Voters in Mississippi and South Dakota will be able to vote on ballot initiatives to legalize recreational cannabis, and similar ballot initiatives are underway or likely in Arizona and Nebraska. Advocates in Arkansas and Oklahoma had also hoped to bring initiatives to the ballot, but have encountered practical and legal obstacles to gathering the required signatures in time for this year’s election.
These myriad initiatives reflect a strong shift toward legalization of recreational cannabis across the country, and the ability to continue gathering signatures and momentum despite stay-at-home orders and social distancing underscores the growing popularity of the movement. Whether through the legislature or directly by the ballot, it seems all but certain that the number of states permitting recreational cannabis will grow significantly this year.
COVID-19 Business Closures
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the early months of 2020, most states instituted various forms of stay-at-home orders that required the closure of nonessential businesses. While these policies had—and continue to have—serious impacts on businesses of every type, cannabis companies have largely seen strong economic growth notwithstanding.
One of the most important developments in this space came in the context of state and local governments designating certain businesses as “essential” for purposes of business closure orders. In nearly every state to consider the issue—Massachusetts being the main outlier—state and local governments recognized cannabis companies as essential, which allowed them to operate during the shutdown.
The “essential” designation largely carried between both recreational and medicinal cannabis jurisdictions. And this matters because of what it means for the industry. State and local governments clearly realize the important medicinal role that cannabis plays for patients dependent on it for treatment, and the overlapping customer bases of mixed dispensaries further contributed to keeping cannabis companies open during the pandemic. Even in states where certain dispensaries operate solely in a recreational capacity, those jurisdictions recognized the importance of allowing access to a safe recreational substance, like alcohol, during prolonged stay-at-home orders.
Similarly, likely as a result of those same stay-at-home orders, cannabis companies largely saw significant increases in sales revenue. More customers visited retail establishments, and those customers often purchased more product per visit. This resulted in better-than-expected sales revenue for cannabis companies, and also produced increased tax revenues for state and local governments.
The cannabis industry saw more than just increased sales, however. In the process of issuing emergency rules for the cannabis industry during quarantine, a number of state and local jurisdictions either began to allow cannabis deliveries or expanded its availability, a shift in policy that may stick around well after the pandemic subsides.
One final impact of the pandemic may also help push legalization initiatives forward in the coming years: decreased tax revenue and major budget gaps. Due both to a decrease in economic activity like shopping and dining, as well as the unexpected health care costs associated with responding to the COVID-19 crisis, state and local budgets are expected to see significant shortcomings for years to come. In response, state and local governments are starting to see cannabis as a significant and viable source of tax revenue. For example, various cities in California that had previously been reluctant to permit recreational cannabis are beginning to welcome cannabis companies in hopes of making up for lost tax revenue. Similarly, in New Mexico, where legalization has remained a heated topic of discussion, Gov. Lujan Grisham has explicitly expressed her regret that the state failed to legalize cannabis, recognizing that tax revenues from the industry could have reached upwards of $100 million. Other state and local governments are coming to similar realizations, which should help propel expanded access to legal cannabis in coming years.
Major changes in the cannabis industry in 2020 have not been limited to the states. In the midst of changes and crises across the country, the federal government has been making meaningful progress in two major respects, COVID-19 notwithstanding.
First, cannabis companies are edging closer to having full access to banks, bank accounts and related financial services. The SAFE Banking Act, championed by Rep. Perlmutter, has made it through the House of Representatives and is currently in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. However, as Congress continues to toil away at future COVID-19 relief legislation, political signals from Washington, D.C., suggest there is a reasonable likelihood that the protections of the SAFE Banking Act will be included, in some form, in the next round of major COVID-19 legislation out of Congress. The enactment of these banking provisions will provide substantial relief to cannabis companies who have largely been excluded from opening bank accounts and utilizing the services major banks provide. Additionally, allowing access to banks and their services should further facilitate the rapid growth in the cannabis economy we are witnessing elsewhere, and this movement could further legitimize the industry as part of a broader push for federal legalization.
Second, after a four-year delay, the DEA has finally proposed draft rules to expand the DEA’s limited cannabis research program. For decades, all cannabis research to date has relied on limited supplies of cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi. Now the DEA is finally following through on its promise to further develop, refine and expand its research program by allowing additional suppliers and market participants to play a role in cannabis research. While the rules proposed are not without detractors and critiques—and the rules themselves have not been finalized—this marks an important step forward to a better understanding of the effects of THC on consumers, not only because more research is needed to understand a substance consumed by millions annually, but also because the limited supply of cannabis on which researchers currently rely has been shown to differ substantially in appearance, consistency and chemical composition from cannabis that is commercially available in states across the country. With an expanded research regime comes the hope that scientists will be able to develop new and innovative cannabis-derived medications, while also furthering our understanding of how THC affects health and the body.
At every level of government, the year in cannabis so far has proven to be far more eventful than many predicted. And the COVID-19 crisis has not slowed progress. There appears to be continued momentum to further mature how cannabis is treated at every level of government, which signals that significant changes are on the horizon. Industry observers will be closely focused on how the rest of the year proceeds, especially with a presidential election on the horizon.
Editor’s Note: This article was revised to clarify that New Jersey has not yet decriminalized marijuana. A decriminalization bill passed the New Jersey General Assembly, but the New Jersey Senate has not acted as of this writing.
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