The measure came from the governor’s office, with the help of two Democrats – The Virginian-Pilot

RICHMOND — Ryan Suit is trying to keep a close eye on marijuana legislation.

As the co-owner of a Virginia Beach boutique that sells cannabinoid products, he doesn’t want to be caught off guard by any new rules or regulations. Yet even Suit was shocked to learn that buried in the state’s recently unveiled budget proposal is a provision that would create a new criminal offense for possession of marijuana.

“They basically weaponized the cannabis budget proposal,” he said.

Suit said he was unaware the conference budget committee was even considering the measure — and he’s not the only one caught off guard.

Lawmakers twice tried to make marijuana possession a criminal offense during this year’s regular legislative session. But when both bills failed, they used the backdoor.

Two Democratic lawmakers played a key role in slipping the criminal law into the budget – intended to establish state government finances. It was a horse trade at 11 o’clock; one was carrying out the wishes of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s office in exchange for legislation it wanted. The other introduced the layout to his group of three by working out the details of the budget.

Now, a mix of lawmakers, organizations and others are criticizing those involved for treating the budget like the legislative version of a drug mule.

“Lawmakers are adding new criminal penalties for marijuana through the budget process without any public input, despite the disparate impact this will have on Blacks and Browns,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia tweeted. “We should all be outraged.”

One of the marijuana bills came from a Fairfax Democrat. It was prosecuted until 2023 by a House committee.

The other had a trip that helps explain why the governor’s office turned to the budget to push the legislation through.

This bill, from Republican Emmet Hanger, did not originally include the misdemeanor provision; it would have banned the sale of edible cannabis products in animal-like shapes that appeal to children.

The bill passed through both chambers with ease and landed on Youngkin’s desk for final approval. Instead, Youngkin added felony language, and more, and sent it back to the Senate.

This time the bill died in committee.

So Youngkin turned his attention to the budget.

The regular legislative session ended on March 12, but the proposed House and Senate budgets were still about $3 billion apart. A committee of lawmakers was then convened to resolve any disputes and create a budget that both houses would be willing to pass.

The budget conference committee was made up of 14 members, but it turns out that most of them were marginalized. The two committee leaders decided that they and a third legislator would work out the details themselves and brief the rest of the committee as they go.

The trio included House Credits Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach; Senate Finance and Appropriations Chair, Janet Howell, D-Fairfax; and Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax.

“If there had been 14 people all trying to negotiate on this, it would have been very difficult and would have taken even longer,” Barker said.

Most committee member communications have taken place through secondary channels – a mix of verbal updates and emails. Had they met regularly in committee, discussions on penalties for possession of marijuana would have been open to the Public.

“We heard bits and pieces of what (the marijuana provision) might be and what it might look like in the budget, but not really exactly what it was until the budget itself was released” , said Senator Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, a member of the committee.

“I would have much preferred to know in advance and discuss it in advance.”

The provision states that anyone caught in public with more than four ounces of marijuana – and less than a pound – could be charged with a misdemeanor. A subsequent offense would always be be a misdemeanor but with a more severe penalty.

Barker admitted he brought the supply of marijuana to a party of three, but said it was delivered to him by another Democratic senator, Barbara Favola.

Favola, of Arlington, confirmed she brought the provision to Barker, but said she disagreed with the creation of the new offense.

“I don’t think we should have criminal justice type provisions in budget parlance; I think they really deserve full conversations,” she said.

Favola said the language came from the governor’s office.

Youngkin’s spokesman Macauley Porter confirmed Favola’s claim, noting that a non-partisan commission associated with the General Assembly had recommended the changes so that there are more graduated penalties for those caught. with marijuana in public before being hit with a felony. This commission, known as JLARC, conducts policy analysis for the General Assembly.

“Even states that have retail (marijuana) sales have possession limits,” Porter wrote.

The reason why Favola agreed to deliver it to Barker: Marijuana proposal included something she wanted — a handful of measures aimed at preventing children from ingesting cannabis, such as banning the sale of products that had the shape of a “human, animal, vehicle or fruit”.

“The whole packaging thing – that’s what I was thinking,” Favola said. “That was really the only thing that motivated me to talk about it was the safety (the issues).”

After reviewing the proposal, Barker said the trio agreed to include it in the budget. He said lawmakers need to take action to help the state prepare for 2024, when retail marijuana sales are expected to begin.

Knight defended the move, noting the JLARC recommendation and that it was a bipartisan effort.

Because the budget negotiations were held behind closed doors, the public, the press, and even most lawmakers didn’t hear about the marijuana provision until the budget proposal was released online three days before being put to the vote on 1 June.

At that time, lawmakers who opposed it felt their hands were tied because they should have rejected the entire proposal to block the marijuana measure from clearing the General Assembly.

Some lawmakers also criticized the budget committee for what they described as a lack of transparency.

Upstairs in the Bedroom, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said this year’s process was the most hidden “we could have imagined.”

“God forbid (the committee should) hold a public meeting and invite the press, the public and the rest of us to find out what they were talking about,” he said. “So that’s the result you get here; you get a bad policy on the recriminalization of marijuana.

As news of the new possession penalties spread, some organizations protested the move.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, said the coalition fought new crimes during this year’s legislative session and that there was “no reason for leaders to believe that this process or this policy reflect the will of the people”.

Lawmakers and the public have a valid reason to be upset, said Justin Kirkland, associate professor of politics and public policy at the University of Virginia. The purpose of a budget is to ensure government agencies have the funding they need to carry out their missions, he said, not to enact new crimes.

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Using the budget to pass laws is attractive to some lawmakers, Kirkland said.

“People don’t really pay attention to budget negotiations and a lot of them happen behind closed doors, which gives (legislators) plenty of opportunities to do things and just hope they get swept under the rug,” did he declare.

Virginia isn’t the only state struggling with secret budget processes.

According to Benjamin Melusky, an assistant professor of political science at Old Dominion University, there has been a national push for more transparency regarding state budgets since the 1990s.

But Melusky said creating a budget is a tenuous procedure that involves a series of trade-offs. If everyone starts intervening, some lawmakers say it would only derail the process, he said.

“At the end of the day, the budget process is complicated,” Melusky said. “But that doesn’t mean there still isn’t room or potential or a need for a bit more public transparency in the process. There is room to grow here.

Katie King, [email protected]

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