Monday, April 15, 2024

A Majority of Virginia Voters Want a Recreational Cannabis Market. Will the Election Matter?

Two mason jars full of Marijuana from a cultivator who asked to not be identified. (Nicole Staab/VCU Capital News Service)

RICHMOND — Victorious lawmakers elected on Nov. 7 will once again grapple with whether the state should create a recreational cannabis retail market.

A recreational market is likely dependent on which party can gain control of the General Assembly, though it ultimately might not matter under the current governor. A majority of likely voters recently surveyed by the Wason Center support allowing retail sale, or 58%. Democrats (76%) and independents (59%) have stronger support than Republicans.

Recreational cannabis has the potential to generate millions of dollars in tax revenue. The market could earn $31-$62 million in the first year, and by year five, commercial marijuana could produce $154-$308 million, according to a 2020 Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission study. It estimated sales could slightly overtake the illegal market by the fourth year of legalization.

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, introduced a bill earlier this year to create an adult-use sales market, but it failed. Ebbin plans to pursue legalization, he said.

“It doesn’t make sense not to have a tested product available that people can know what they’re getting and have it properly taxed,” Ebbin said.

Lawmakers proposed a 21% tax on the product, something detractors said will drive the illegal market. Medical marijuana is not taxed in Virginia, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.

“There is major tax money that could help us expand pre-K,” Ebbin said. “And scholarships for foster youths, and other good uses could be helping communities that need it.”

The state of Colorado has generated over $2.5 billion in tax revenue from recreational cannabis when collections started in 2014, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

“The Republican party in the House has been a roadblock to this, if people want an open legal cannabis market, they need to elect Democratic majority into the House and Senate,” Ebbin said.

The tax money Colorado makes off of recreational cannabis goes to local and state government, a public school fund and marijuana tax cash fund, according to the state’s budget.

The first $40 million of a 15% marijuana excise tax funds Colorado school construction, through the program Building Excellent Schools Today.

Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Spotsylvania, voted against Ebbin’s bill. He does not support the commercial sale of cannabis, but will continue to support medical cannabis, he said.

Orrock is the chair of the House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions. He asked the Cannabis Control Authority to conduct a market study and to examine the “necessity and feasibility of adding licenses to the existing medical cannabis program,” according to the organization. The CCA will take over management of the medical cannabis program in January.

Some policymakers and stakeholders believe additional licenses could create “greater accessibility to medical cannabis and economic opportunity,” according to the CCA.

The authority’s study and recommendations are due on Nov. 30.

Despite states like Colorado generating funds from their marijuana sales, Orrock is not convinced by the data he sees from other states, he said.

“What I’ve seen is it has also increased the black market activity because the taxation on the product tends to encourage the black market production in sale,” Orrock said.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, Orrock does not see Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s position changing, he said.

The governor has told reporters in the past he’s “not interested” in legalizing recreational marijuana. Youngkin also adjusted a bill to ban the sale of hemp products that contain Delta-8 THC earlier this year.

Alex Keena is an associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, who researches political representation. Democrats passed cannabis laws with the intention of working out the “kinks” later, he said.

If Republicans take control of the statehouse, they’re likely going to roll back decriminalization, Keena said. Lawmakers will carve away at the threshold of legal possession.

“The electorate is more made up of older Americans,” Keena said. “And especially Republicans, their base of support skews much older.”

Voters from an older generation may view cannabis to be the same as cocaine or heroin, there is no nuance, Keena said.

“It looks good to be tough on crime, to implement severe penalties for using drugs,” he said.

Even if the Democrats have a majority in the House and Senate, a recreational cannabis market is unlikely with Youngkin’s administration, according to Keena.

“Maybe that’ll be an issue in the 2025 governor’s race,” Keena said.

Election Day is Nov. 7. Early in-person voting ends at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 4.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University‘s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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