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Virginia Governor Vetoes Marijuana Parental Rights Bill

In a potential glimpse at what’s to come for recently passed marijuana legislation in Virginia, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin just vetoed a bipartisan marijuana parental rights bill at the 11th hour. The bill, with advocates on both sides of the political aisle, was aimed at preventing the state from using marijuana alone as evidence of child abuse and neglect in certain situations.

What does this mean for marijuana reform in the state? Advocates are worried that the veto of House Bill 833 is a sign of the times to come.

Virginia Governor Youngkin “Concerned About the Kids”

Technically, adult use of marijuana in the Commonwealth of Virginia is legal. Adults over 21 can legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana and smoke marijuana privately in their homes. It is also legal to grow up to four marijuana plants at home. However, penalizing people for consuming marijuana and being a parent is still fair game.

House Bill 833 was a piece of bipartisan legislation designed to protect parents who consume lawful substances. If signed into law, it would have meant no parent could be denied custody or visitation of a child based solely on the fact that they possessed or consumed marijuana, a legal substance. It also highlighted the fact that a child could not be considered abused or neglected only because a parent possessed or consumed marijuana.

In his veto message, Gov. Youngkin says, “The proposed legislation, aiming to address a non-existent problem, has potential consequences that may expose children to harm.” Gov. Youngkin also argues that the measure would undermine the link between substance use and harm to children, especially if they consume cannabis-infused substances found in the home. He also suggests that the measure could have endangered child welfare, adding, “This is a significant threat to child safety, potentially shielding parents engaging in substance possession or consumption from scrutiny. This failure to consider nuanced circumstances undermines the child’s best interests and contradicts our efforts to address substance misuse in families and communities.”

The bill’s author, Delegate Rae Cousins (D-Richmond), says that she drafted the measure because she couldn’t fathom separation from her young daughter based on entirely legal activity. She notes that she has received calls from constituents sharing their stories of visitation or custody rights having been revoked because of a positive marijuana drug screening. Delegate Cousins argues that the bill does not state that the court could not consider other factors, only that marijuana should not be the sole factor used to decide the fate of a child.

Where Does HB 833 Go from Here?

From the rejection pile, HB 833 now returns to the Democrat-controlled legislature. For the measure to become law, it must garner a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers to overcome Governor Youngkin’s veto. The bill won nearly unanimous approval in the Senate. However, it faced a more difficult trial in the House, where it passed with mostly Democrats in favor and gathered only a few Republican supporters. Getting the two-thirds votes the measure needs to override a veto seems plausible in the Senate but will be an uphill battle in the House. A companion bill identical to HB 833, SB 115, also passed the legislature during this session but has yet to hit the governor’s desk. Chances are it awaits a similar fate and rejection from the Republican governor.

A Glimpse of What’s to Come

Although the measure has enormous support from the legislature and marijuana advocates, it is perhaps unsurprising that Governor Youngkin vetoed it. He has continued to insist in interviews that he is not interested in pressing forward with cannabis reform in Virginia. Many hoped that his non-committal statements meant he would not actively endorse marijuana legislation but wouldn’t veto reasonable measures that cross his desk, especially those with bipartisan and public support. That doesn’t seem to be the case and is making legislators and advocates nervous about what’s in store for the Commonwealth in the coming weeks.

Perhaps one of the most significant pieces of marijuana reform legislation sitting on the governor’s desk is a measure legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana, passed earlier in the legislative session. While it is true that marijuana possession and consumption are legal in Virginia, marijuana sales are not. In 2021, the Democratic legislature legalized marijuana but did not establish a legal sales marketplace, hoping to accomplish the task later. Unfortunately, when Republicans took control of the legislature, the hope of establishing a legal sales and cultivation marketplace was dashed. For years, Virginia has sat in a legal cannabis limbo where marijuana possession is legal, but marijuana sales are not.

In the interim, illegal pot shops continue to pop up, selling unregulated substances to a market hungry for recreational cannabis. Some estimates suggest that the value of the unregulated and illegal cannabis market in Virginia hovers around $3 billion. These lofty sales figures could instead be directed to Virginia communities if sales were legal and taxed accordingly.

With Democrats controlling the legislature again, there was renewed energy and excitement about revisiting cannabis reform and establishing a cultivation and sales industry in Virginia. Earlier, a legalization measure that would accomplish those goals mainly passed along party lines. However, Gov. Youngkin’s recent comments and veto of House Bill 833 have many in Virginia worried about the fate of legal cannabis sales and whether the bill has enough support to overcome a potential veto.

Cannabis advocates are still hopeful that the legalization measure stands a chance of becoming law and puts Virginia in league with other states that have thriving recreational cannabis industries.

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