How to regulate legal pot? Debate begins in Virginia

If Virginia follows through with Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan to legalize marijuana, the state should create a brand-new agency to regulate and oversee the marijuana market, a panel of lawmakers recommended Wednesday.

The Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Subcommittee made the determination after taking up Northam’s proposal and hearing testimony from dozens of people this week.

Northam’s plan calls for placing the regulatory responsibility under the umbrella of Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, but the Senate panel decided that would not be the best course to take.

Lawmakers said the focus of ABC was more on law enforcement and public safety rather than regulation.

“This line of business is much different than the current work of ABC,” said the panel’s chairman Sen. Jeremy McPike. “The business model is a significant enough departure to warrant an independent agency.”

But creating a new state agency would likely throw Northam’s timetable out of place.

Under Northam’s plan, Virginians 21 and older would be allowed to legally purchase marijuana in 2023. Senators on the subcommittee said that date would need to be pushed back to 2024, because the state would need additional time to form the new marijuana regulatory agency.

“The recommendation from this subcommittee is to adjust the dates by one year,” McPike said.

Lawmakers voted 4-3 to advance the legislation with their recommendations attached. It now moves to the full Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee for consideration.

In announcing his support for legalizing pot, Northam said he wanted a responsible approach that promotes racial equity and preserves youth safety. He said he wants to legalize marijuana sales, tax them at 21%, and use the revenue to fund plans such as early education for at-risk children and minority scholarships.

A report released in November by Virginia’s legislative watchdog agency showed the state could net more than $300 million per year in tax revenue if the state were to legalize recreational marijuana.

If Virginia does legalize the drug, it would be the first Southern state to do so.

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