As Virginia’s Republican governor and other leaders pursue a plan to bring two professional sports teams—the Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals—to Alexandria, the state’s Democratic Senate leader suggested this week that her support for the plan might be contingent on getting a bill to legalize marijuana sales enacted into law.
“While some people want sports stadiums,” Senate President Pro Tempore Louis Lucas (D-VA) said in a social media post on Monday, “I want tolls to disappear from Hampton Roads *and* I want recreational sale of marijuana.”
“Guess we will have to find compromises this session,” she said.
The comment comes as supporters of bringing the two Washington, D.C. teams to Virginia gear up to push a $2 billion entertainment district in Alexandria, which would include a stadium, practice facility, performing arts venue and updated esports facility, in addition to a variety of mixed-use development.
The project, which would require support from the state legislature to create a new authority to issue development bonds, would be located adjacent to the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus and near Amazon HQ2, according to a Virginia Mercury report.
While some people want sports stadiums…
I want tolls to disappear from Hampton Roads *and* I want recreational sale of marijuana.
Guess we will have to find compromises this session.
— L. Louise Lucas (@SenLouiseLucas) December 11, 2023
“This makes it sound like your vote on the arena can be bought,” suggested one commenter. To which Lucas replied, quoting the first Black woman to be elected to Congress: “I am un-bought and un-bossed.”
Lucas has been a supporter of marijuana legalization for years now. In 2021, she called on her colleagues and then-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to make the change that year—which they did. On April 20 the next year, she celebrated the state’s end to cannabis prohibition but said there was “much work left to be done.”
One major reform many Democrats would like to see is the legalization of retail cannabis sales. Under the change in 2021, lawmakers, led by Democrats, legalized the use, possession and limited personal cultivation of marijuana by adults. But Republicans, after winning control of the state House of Delegates and governor’s office, blocked the required reenactment of a regulatory framework for retail sales.
The Democratic-controlled Senate passed a legal sales regulation bill this year, but a GOP House majority killed the legislation.
Without a legal place for consumers to purchase cannabis, illegal, unlicensed storefronts have proliferated across the state.
As Lucas’s social media post makes clear, some lawmakers would still like to see progress on legal sales.
One of Lucas’s colleagues, Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), recently said he’s “confident” that lawmakers can send a bill to tax and regulate marijuana sales to Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in the coming year. The question, he noted, is whether supporters can build enough bipartisan support to avoid a potential veto.
Ebbin, who has indicated his intent to file a marijuana sales bill in the new legislative session, said at the time that he wasn’t able to discuss details of the forthcoming proposal “because we are just getting the final draft details together still with legislative services.”
Now, following November’s elections, Democrats will have majorities in both the House and Senate, which some advocates see as a path to finally allowing legal sales.
While Ebbin, who championed the state’s 2021 legalization law, is expected to introduce a bill in the coming session that would legalize commercial cannabis sales, it’s unclear how the proposal will fare. In addition to hesitancy from Republicans and uncertainty around Youngkin’s stance, there are also calls from Black and progressive advocates to build justice and equity reforms into the legislation.
Chelsea Higgs Wise, the executive director of Marijuana Justice, for example, has said that Democrats need to use their new power to pass a bill that centers social equity and has repairs for drug war harms built into the framework for legal sales. But she has also doubted it’s actually possible for Democrats to thread the needle and dodge Youngkin’s veto, regardless of how much they compromise with Republicans.
“I believe that Gov. Youngkin will ensure that the entire nation knows that he has been able to veto an adult sales bill in Virginia,” she told Marijuana Moment earlier this year. “He would love nothing more but to have that on his Republican resume.”
While Youngkin’s administration has signaled its hesitance to move forward on further adult-use marijuana reform, the governor’s own comments have been less clear.
“I don’t write legislation for them; they’ve got to sort this out,” Youngkin told local public media outlet VPM in February, when a separate sales bill from Ebbin was still in play. “I have said over and over again, I think that creating a market for cannabis is very complicated. There’s other states that have struggled, and they’ve got to go do the work. And I’ve looked at them for sending me bills.”
Ebbin, who saw the Republican-controlled House vote down a Senate-passed sales measure in the 2022 session, told Marijuana Moment in October that Youngkin “has been a challenge to deal with because he hasn’t been forthcoming with his views on what he’s willing to support.”
“I’m not sure what the governor will sign, since he’s been kind of cagey and not really supportive in his public statements,” he said at the time.
Asked whether it was possible that Democrats rally behind a bill that’s narrow and designed to be palatable to Youngkin only to have the governor veto it anyway, Ebbin told Marijuana Moment: “Yeah, I would say there would be a substantial chance of that.”
A Gallup poll released last month shows that a majority of Republicans—along with 70 percent of Americans overall—support legalizing marijuana.
Under Ebbin’s bill this past legislative session, recreational cannabis sales would have begun on January 1, 2024. Sales would have taken place through existing medical cannabis dispensaries as well as at new businesses run by people who live in “historically economically disadvantaged communities.” Those operators would be eligible for training and support from current medical cannabis companies.
The legislation also included provisions for the resentencing of people currently incarcerated for cannabis convictions. Marijuana products would have been subject to a 21 percent excise tax, and localities could have imposed an additional three percent tax. Revenue would have supported reinvestment programs for historically economically disadvantaged communities, education for at-risk youth and addiction prevention services.
Days after the GOP-controlled House rejected that proposal, it also killed a bill that would have let medical cannabis businesses made certain state-level tax deductions. Republicans also scuttled separate legislation to create a psilocybin advisory board and reschedule the psychedelic.
Meanwhile in Virginia, several hemp businesses were recently hit with five-figure fines as part of an effort by the state to crack down on hemp cannabinoid products.
Two companies and a private citizen have also sued over the newly tightened rules for hemp products, which set the maximum amount of THC in hemp products at 0.3 percent concentration and 2 milligrams per package. The threshold made illegal hundreds of products already on store shelves. But in October, a judge denied their claim.
Last year, Lucas herself was flagged in a media investigation around CBD products, as the co-owner of a cannabis shop in Portsmouth. Lab testing revealed the shop stocked mislabeled products, some of which contained illegal levels of THC. The problem is common among hemp-derived CBD products, which in most states remain unregulated.