2023 Virginia Hashish Convention highlights progress, frustrations with rising economic system

A look at the intersection in Ashland where a train collided with an abandoned vehicle.

One small step at a time. That was the mantra at the Virginia Cannabis Conference & Lobby Day, which runs through Monday in downtown Richmond.

The event was a testament to the breadth to which cannabis, also known as marijuana, has become a cultural and economic issue in the state since the plant was largely legalized in July 2020 — and to the frustratingly slow progress made on some key issues since then .

Attendees included clinicians, lobbyists, researchers, marketers and legislators. Many came to get up to speed on the rules regulating marijuana in Virginia, which have developed, albeit with frustrating slowness for those in the industry.

And those rules are still mind-bogglingly complex.

For example, the growing and possession of marijuana is legal in the state, but its sale as a flower is not.

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Its sale as a compound, such as a topical oil or in a gummy, is legal but only in certain types of bags and with certain warning labels, some of which are so long they don’t realistically fit on their packaging.

“These are questions we still continue to grapple with at the level of the legislature,” said Hunter Jameson, a lawyer and lobbyist who spoke Sunday.

The conference was hosted by Virginia NORML, the state arm of the national marijuana advocacy organization.

The complexity isn’t just a headache, said JM Pedini, NORML development director and Virginia NORML executive director. When the General Assembly legalized possession, it didn’t legalize regulated access. That means it’s still illegal to sell marijuana in Virginia.

Filling the void in the recreational market have been illicit dealers. Data from Leafly, a marijuana distribution and education company, recently estimated the illicit marijuana market to be worth $1.8 billion.

“1.8 billion dollars is not your friend who sells weed,” said Pedini, who has been vocally critical of the legislature. Pedini has lobbied it to do more to open up the business to distributors who will be good stewards of their product.

“We have a legislative body that purports to care about patient safety,” Pedini said. “Instead, we just put our heads in the sand, and we’re encouraging the illicit market.”

One example: Synthetic marijuana derived from the CBD found in hemp isn’t illegal, and unregulated versions of it can be found in mom-and-pop stores across the commonwealth.

“It’s a gray area,” said Michelle Peace, a toxicologist with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Forensic Science.

The event was also attended by local marijuana entrepreneurs. Milton and Jennifer Ares operate RVA Cannabis Company, a licensed dispensary in Chesterfield County.

The two started the venture in September 2020, just months after legalization. Their best-selling product is a topical pain oil, which uses CBD as an active component.

CBD is a chemical found in marijuana that doesn’t have the same psychotropic effects as THC.

Most of their clients are over the age of 40, said Milton Ares, and return excited about finding a new way to treat their pain.

“It just really shows the therapeutic value of cannabis,” Milton said.

The issue of pain management is central to the marijuana debate, which some view as a viable alternative to strong drugs like opioids.

But the debate is stunted by bad data. Federally, marijuana is still a Schedule I drug, even though numerous states have legalized or decriminalized it.

The federal ban makes it difficult for researchers to study marijuana as a viable alternative to powerful pain management drugs or even commonly prescribed antidepressants.

“The medical infrastructure just doesn’t support the patient when they want to move to a plant-based product,” said Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, who is also a nurse practitioner. “This is why it’s so important to reschedule this.”

In Virginia, the legislature has been slow to move since making big initial moves toward legalization under past Democratic administrations.

However, the legislature has several bills on its upcoming docket that would significantly reshape the industry.

On Sunday, speakers at the conference sounded the alarm on how some of those bills would hurt minority and small-business owners. Nationwide, equitable access to the marijuana economy has been a key component for racial justice advocates who note that minorities have disproportionately borne the brunt of criminalization for decades.

Speaking after a panel on social equity, Paul McLean, founder of the Virginia Minority Cannabis Coalition, was critical of a bill proposed by Del. Keith Hodges, R-Middlesex.

McLean said Hodges’ bill “literally took out every mention of the word ‘equity.'”

“Yeah, I’m worried about that bill,” McLean said. “It’s not just bad for minorities; it would be bad for small businesses. It would pave the way for big companies, like Altria, even Anheuser-Busch, to come in and dominate the Virginia market.”

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