Virginia Favors The Big Players In Cannabis Regulation

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Young cannabis plant Virginia cannabis
Virginians can grow their own cannabis plants, but those who want to buy recreational marijuana must patronize the black market. Photo: Shutterstock

Two years ago Virginia became the first state in the South to legalize possession of cannabis. People could grow up to four hemp plants without fear of prosecution. The state also legalized medical marijuana, but the law did not create ways to buy recreational cannabis. Eric Pastow is an attorney who specializes in hemp regulation.

“Consumers want these products, so if they weren’t good at growing it themselves, they could either go get a medical prescription, and get it that way, but that’s a very limited marketplace that isn’t everywhere right now, and people might have to drive long distances to get their medicine, or you would purchase it on the black market,” he says.

And sellers quickly discovered a loophole in the law, allowing them to sell products that contained large amounts of synthetic THC – the ingredient in hemp that gets people high. Consumers could buy those edible or smoke-able products at gas stations and CBD stores.

Poison control centers and hospitals began reporting cases where kids had gotten into their parents edibles. One child actually died, and his mother faced criminal charges. Pastow says that incident provided a kind of fig leaf for further restricting cannabis sales in Virginia.

“We don’t know what caused the tragic death of the child. It could have been a contaminated product. We do know that responsibility for the parents is always necessary – whether it’s alcohol or prescription pills or cannabis or anything. If we look at the history of cannabis, we do not see deaths like this from cannabis products, and it’s being turned into a political football.”

Amen says Goochland County hemp farmer and CBD producer Reed Anderson.

“We need to look at packaging. We need to look at labeling,” he contends. “You know a few years back when kids started eating Tide pods, did they ban Tide pods? No. They attacked the packaging and required Tide to secure their package and put disclaimers and warnings on it. Same things really needs to go for our industry.”

Instead, Delegate Terry Kilgore introduced a bill that would limit the amount of THC – synthetic or natural — that products could contain. Virginia farmers like Reed Anderson said that measure would put them out of business, and parents who depended on CBD imported from Colorado to treat seizures in their children feared their supply would be cut off, so the Governor amended Kilgore’s bill. In its current form, consumers could buy products if they contained no more than 1 part THC to 25 parts CBD – a component of hemp that reduces pain and seizures. The measure also includes more than $2 million to police the budding hemp industry, news that did not please lawyer Eric Pastow.

“It introduces a stronger enforcement component – more money to arrest people, so we’re going back in time to re-criminalize different transactions regarding the cannabis plant. We’re going to really just allow for well-funded, out-of-state corporate operators to have the majority market share of the marijuana market through the medical side.”

The state allows just four large companies to sell medical cannabis, regulating them through the board of pharmacy. They’re not subject to the same rules as small players like Reed Anderson, who are regulated by the Virginia Department of Agriculture.

“The multi-state medical industry – like Jushi, Inc or Green Thumb –they’re the ones who are out there, who are trying to change the legislation,” Anderson says. “They don’t want us. They don’t want the competition. They know the power of the small farmer who’s producing high quality medicine for their neighbors.”

He thinks big companies have protected their markets by contributing more than a quarter of a million dollars to lawmakers’ political campaigns. Trent Woloveck is Chief Strategy Director for one of them — Florida-based Jushi, Inc.

“When you’re operating in an emerging, highly regulated industry it requires some political engagement,” he explains.

His company was especially generous to the bill’s sponsor and House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore. Jushi paid Kilgore’s campaign $22,000.

“Being able to educate Terry – excuse me, Leader Kilgore and bring him up to speed on that we thought was extremely important,” Woloveck says.

Meanwhile, police in Newport News seized 205 pounds of Virginia cannabis and 309 pounds of THC-infused edibles at a pop-up market. Police in Portsmouth raided a similar market where they found a hundred pounds of pot and a variety of THC products. Sellers could face time in prison for marketing the same drug that is apparently profitable for large corporate players.