Rappahannock News

Webert leads GOP’s e ort to change marijuana laws

Rappahanno­ck’s delegate seeks changes to how tax revenue from marijuana sales is directed

- B N O The Virginia Mercury is an independen­t, nonprofit online news organizati­on covering state government and policy.

GOP lawmakers in the Virginia House of Delegates are taking their first stab at legislatio­n to open the retail marijuana market, introducin­g bills that would lower the tax rate on sales and redirect proposed social equity funding to school infrastruc­ture.

But leadership in the chamber stressed that the effort remains very much a work in progress and that they expect plenty of changes as the legislatio­n makes its way through the committee system.

“We’ll come up with something,” said Garren Shipley, a spokesman for House Speaker Todd Gilbert, said last week. “There will be a bill. There may be multiple bills. But something is going to come out of this chamber.”

Republican­s unanimousl­y opposed legalizati­on when Democrats voted last year to allow people to grow and possess small amounts of marijuana. But Democratic lawmakers’ decision to leave it until this year to finalize the particular­s of how a legal retail market would work — combined with the loss of their House majority in November — has left the once-reluctant GOP with a key role in deciding how to proceed.

Gilbert said that while his caucus opposed legalizati­on, he views it as imperative to come up with a mechanism for legal sales, complainin­g that the legal framework left in place by Democrats has only empowered the black market.

The party has so-far left the heavy lifting on that front to Del. Michael Webert, R-Fauquier, who was among a handful of GOP lawmakers to support reducing penalties for marijuana possession two years ago and is the only member of the party to introduce a comprehens­ive bill governing retail sales.


While his bill largely tracks with legislatio­n introduced by Democrats in the House and Senate, it diverges in a few key areas.

First, it halves the proposed tax rate on retail sales from 21 percent to 10 percent, which would be the lowest in the country. Webert called the step important to compete with the black market, citing the experience of California, where the combined tax rate on sales is just over 36 percent.

“They have an ungodly huge black market,” Webert said. “So we don’t want the taxes so high that we drive things to the black market.”

His bill also changes how the money would be spent.


Democrats centered their legalizati­on effort around social equity provisions aimed at making amends for disproport­ionate enforcemen­t of marijuana laws in Black communitie­s. To that end, they proposed that 35 percent of tax revenue from marijuana sales be dedicated to a Cannabis Equity Reinvestme­nt Fund, which the law proposed be dedicated to providing scholarshi­ps, community programs and business loans to people and communitie­s “historical­ly and disproport­ionately targeted and affected by drug enforcemen­t.”

Webert’s bill eliminates that fund, instead proposing the revenue for a new grant program to help local government­s pay for the cost of repairing or replacing school roofs.

Finding more state funds to fix decrepit school buildings has been a focus for some Republican­s recently and Webert said his approach would benefit both rural and urban areas that have struggled with the issue.

Webert also proposes tweaking — but not eliminatin­g — a program devised by Democrats to give people negatively impacted by prohibitio­n priority access to marijuana business licenses.

His legislatio­n strikes criteria that would have extended preference to people convicted of marijuana crimes in the past — something that GOP lawmakers vocally opposed last year. But it maintains language that would allow priority access for people who live in areas that were subject to higher than average enforcemen­t or are economical­ly disadvanta­ged. It also maintains eligibilit­y for people who attended a Virginia historical­ly black college or university.


The bill also includes subtler departures from the approach proposed by Democrats. For instance both bills allow localities to hold referendum­s to opt out of marijuana sales, but the GOP bill would bind towns to the decision of their surroundin­g county while the Democratic bill treats them as independen­t jurisdicti­ons. (Legislatio­n from two GOP delegates goes further, barring any retail marijuana stores unless sales are specifical­ly approved by a local referendum.)

The GOP bill also drops languages that would block local government­s from passing new zoning rules that apply only to marijuana businesses.

And it strikes language that was aimed at promoting unionizati­on in the new industry by refusing to license business owners who oppose unionizati­on efforts by employees or rely heavily on independen­t contractor­s.

For now, Republican­s and Democrats have proposed similar stances on resentenci­ng for people currently imprisoned on marijuana charges, allowing them to petition a judge to reconsider their sentence, though the GOP bill excludes people convicted of distributi­ng the drug to minors.

A bill authored by Del. Carrie Coyner, R- Chesterfie­ld, goes further, proposing automatic resentenci­ng hearings.


Both chambers have also introduced separate legislatio­n to move the date retail sales can begin from 2024 to 2023 — a key recommenda­tion from lawmakers tasked with studying the issue over the summer.

The chambers differ, however, on whether to include large hemp processors in the stop- gap program. The House version limits early sales to existing medical producers. The Senate version allows large industrial hemp processors to also enter the market early.

So far, none of the bills have been docketed in the House of Delegates and it remains unclear when debate on the measures will begin in earnest.

 ?? FILE PHOTO BY LAWRENCE EMERSON/ FAUQUIER NOW ?? Del. Michael Webert (R-18th): “We don’t want the taxes so high that we drive things to the black market.”
FILE PHOTO BY LAWRENCE EMERSON/ FAUQUIER NOW Del. Michael Webert (R-18th): “We don’t want the taxes so high that we drive things to the black market.”

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