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RICHMOND, Va. — The medical cannabis market is thriving in Virginia, while the future of recreational cannabis, including hemp, is murkier.
Cannabis advocates and smokers are disappointed after a 2022 General Assembly session that saw lawmakers fail to speed up sales of recreational cannabis and propose penalties for possession of amounts over 2 pounds, although lawmakers made it easier to obtain a medical cannabis card.
“I think in terms of customer perception of the legislation, people are a bit angry,” said Christopher Haynie, co-founder of Happy Trees Agricultural Supply, which sells cannabis growing equipment.
Retail sales in smoke
The Republican-led House of Delegates refused to pass a bipartisan bill in the Senate through a subcommittee that would have accelerated retail cannabis sales to September rather than wait for the originally proposed date of 2024.
Since some aspects of the 2021 bill have not been re-enacted, it is retail cannabis market unlikely to open in 2024 as initially planned.
Haynie said the company’s customers are concerned that large corporations will primarily control the recreational cannabis market. Happy Trees works with small cannabis farms that want to join the retail market, but are concerned that licensing fees, restrictions, and large farms will outweigh the price of small batch operations.
“There seems to be a pervasive attitude among our customers who stay informed about this that Virginia is about to cede the recreational cannabis market to corporate candidates and not give the little guy a chance to really come in” , said Haynie.
Lobbyists have tricked Virginia lawmakers into believing it’s safer for several large companies to produce the products rather than having hundreds of operations in small batches, said Happy Trees co-founder Josiah Ickes .
“We have all these little breweries in Richmond,” Ickes said. “It would be a bit like saying, ‘Oh look at all these little breweries, they have to go away because we don’t know if they’re creating safe beer. “”
People will continue to grow their own cannabis or apply for medical cannabis patient cards since the General Assembly has not accelerated retail sales, Haynie said.
Medical Cannabis Cards
Governor Glenn Youngkin recently signed into law a law that eliminates the requirement to register with the state Board of Pharmacy before being allowed to purchase medical cannabis products from licensed sellers.
Of the. Roxann L. Robinson, R-Chesterfield, presented House Bill 933which allows a patient to bypass obtaining a pharmacy board card after receiving a referral from a medical provider.
According to the bill, pharmaceutical processors and cannabis distribution facilities will notify the Council each month of new written certifications received by pharmaceutical processors or cannabis distribution facilities.
The Board of Pharmacy issued 1,377 medical cannabis cards in 2019 after lawmakers approved the sale of low-dose THC oil. The following year, 7,135 cards were issued.
The number of cards issued increased to 33,340 in 2021, when the General Assembly approved the sale of cannabis flowers, or smoked buds, with a medical card. The Commission issued 10,055 cards at the beginning of April. There are currently 6,000 pending applications, which fluctuate for various reasons according to Diane Powers, director of communications at the Virginia Department of
Smokers say there are limits
Richmond resident Brandy, who wished to be identified only by her first name because she is currently looking for a job, started smoking cannabis at age 15. Brandy, now 37, grows plants at home. Citizens can grow up to four plants legally per household.
Brandy has a state-approved cannabis prescription to treat anxiety and bipolar disorder, but said she prefers growing cannabis to going to a dispensary because it’s cheaper. Health insurance does not cover medical cannabis.
“In Virginia, it really sucks,” Brandy said. “You walk in and they have the little half-gram carts, and it’s $65.”
With a retail market still unestablished, Brandy said she would rather develop her own supply than buy illegally from a dealer.
“That way I know exactly what’s in there,” Brandy said. “It’s all organic, there are no chemicals in it.”
There are four state-licensed medical cannabis companies to serve five health districts in Virginia, and only those companies can open medical cannabis dispensaries in that district. Health District 1, which includes areas like Albemarle, Charlottesville, Culpeper, Fredericksburg, Stafford and Staunton, currently does not have a licensed company.
Meanwhile, a Richmond resident has two locations within a 16-mile radius to pick up prescription cannabis. There are currently 11 such dispensaries open throughout the state, according to cannabis legalization advocacy group Virginia NORML.
In addition to expensive products, some patients travel long distances to obtain medical cannabis.
“Another big factor with people, you know, not wanting to seek treatment is patient access,” Haynie said. “During their daily life, they have to go out of their way, and that can be a day trip for some people.”
These are all reasons Happy Trees has reported a steady increase in customers since opening in 2020, Haynie said.
“One of the biggest benefits of growing your own plants for personal use is your ability to choose what works best for you,” Haynie says. “Medical farms will be like any other agricultural customer, so they will grow what suits them best.”
In addition to working with personal growers, Happy Trees has hemp farm customers, some of whom grow their crop for CBD, who rely on the company for equipment.
Governor Amends Cannabis Bill
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, proposed Senate Bill 591 which initially aimed to reduce underage use of retail cannabis products by banning depictions of animals, humans, vehicles and fruit.
Lawmakers amended and passed a bill that changes the Virginia code definition of cannabis to include any substance that contains more than 0.3 percent or more than 0.25 milligrams of THC per serving or more than one milligram of THC per package.
The bill also clamped down on the market for delta-8, or products made synthetically to have higher THC levels, which sprung up because of what lawmakers saw as a legislative loophole. Hanger’s bill is also a concern industrial hemp growers because some products on the market could exceed the authorized levels.
Haynie said several clients moved their hemp businesses back to Virginia when it became legal and will either move their business out of state or stop working in the industry.
“I can literally count 20 people I know who will be out of work if this bill passes,” Haynie said.
Youngkin had several recommendations for the bill, including making it a class 2 misdemeanor to possess 2-6 ounces of cannabis, which could mean up to six months in jail, or up to a $1,000 fine, or both . Youngkin recommended that possession of more than 6 ounces and up to 16 ounces be made a class 1 misdemeanor. Currently, the penalty is a $25 fine for possession of more than 1 ounce and up to 16 ounces.
“We are extremely dismayed that the Governor has sought to enact criminal penalties for possession of certain amounts,” Happy Trees said of Youngkin’s recommendations. “It seems to create legal penalties for something that is not a problem.”
Youngkin also added that only people 21 or older can buy CBD products.
Although 0.3% THC is already the legal limit in Virginia, Youngkin hit language that would have made any product containing more than 0.25 milligrams of THC per serving illegal. Growers said the bill approved by lawmakers would have made it more difficult to find a market to sell hemp products, other than fiber, if the product market was more heavily regulated.
“We commend the governor for removing the THC concentration limits that were part of the original bill,” Happy Trees said. “Easily 40% of our full-spectrum products would have been illegal had the bill been signed as originally passed by the General Assembly.”
Honey Seibert started growing legally in 2021 and has a side job helping people set up and maintain their cannabis growing environments. Producers are happy to ban branded cannabis products to attract underage users, she said.
“There’s a serious community of producers out there who don’t want to see things marketed that way,” Seibert said. “They should have more adult names.”
Seibert said it would be awful if the bill passed, regardless. Seibert’s husband has started using easily obtainable delta-8 vape cartridges to relieve back pain while traveling and in situations where he can’t smoke cannabis.
The General Assembly is due to meet again on April 27 to consider the governor’s recommendations.
By Joe Dodson
Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a program of the Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.