Virginia wants two professional sports teams to call the state home. However, the Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals can’t make the move to “Old Dominion” just yet. They need a stadium and updated sports facilities. Those updates can’t happen without the approval of the Commonwealth legislature, and one Democratic senator says their support hinges on whether Virginia moves to legalize marijuana sales.
Sports for recreational marijuana: is it a fair trade? Does cannabis reform have a chance moving forward in a state with a narrow Democratic legislative majority and a Republican governor who has indicated in the past that he is “not interested” in legalizing marijuana sales?
The Debate Over Sports and Cannabis
Virginia wants to welcome professional sports to the Commonwealth – or at least some of its elected officials do. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) has been hard at work reaching a tentative agreement to bring the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals to Virginia. Moving Washington., D.C., teams to Virginia would involve creating a new “visionary sports and entertainment venue” in northern Virginia, at least according to the governor. Alexandria’s $2 billion entertainment district would include a stadium, practice facilities, performing arts venues, and even an updated, state-of-the-art e-sports facility. The plan would also include numerous mixed-use developments.
The governor says the state’s first major professional sports teams would be a fantastic draw. In addition to the new and improved sporting facilities, the district could entice hotels, shopping retailers, and other businesses to the district, increasing revenue, bringing in new jobs, and boosting the economy. The governor calls the tentative deal “monumental.” That’s if all goes according to plan.
Creating such a district takes the state legislature’s approval, and at least one lawmaker is saying, not so fast. While Republicans control the governor’s mansion, Democrats retook the House of Delegates and cemented their Senate majority in November’s elections. Top Senate Democrat and Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas says that before the state welcomes professional sports, she wants to see tolls disappear from Hampton Roads and the recreational sale of marijuana move forward.
What’s the Process?
A $2 billion plan doesn’t go anywhere without approval from the Virginia legislature. Bringing the teams to Virginia means the legislature needs to create a new authority to issue development bonds. Under the proposed deal to bring the teams from Washington, D.C., to Virginia, the state’s Major Economic Incentives Commission approved a plan to set up a new authority that would issue $2 billion in bonds for the district. Monumental Sports and Entertainment Group would enter into a 40-year site lease. They would repay the bond through incremental taxes generated by the district, rent payments, arena parking revenues, and district naming rights. The company must also invest $403 million into the proposed project.
In comparison, Alexandra would contribute $56 million to construct a performing arts center and $50 million to an underground parking facility. Monumental Sports and Entertainment CEO Ted Leonsis is excited by the deal and says that Virginia is a “fantastic state” and the “most successful state without professional sports teams.”
However, the overall project requires the backing of the General Assembly. Legislators must approve the creation of the New Virginia Sports and Entertainment Authority. A proposal will be presented to the legislature when they convene in January. Sen. Louise Lucas (D-VA) says she wants the legislature to focus on other projects, such as legalizing recreational marijuana sales in the Commonwealth – something the Democratic-controlled legislature had cleared the way for in 2021, only to see their work undone by the Republican legislature ushered in by voters later that year. Lucas has long been a supporter of cannabis reform, and now calls on her colleagues to push legislation past the goalpost, potentially in exchange for supporting the new sports and entertainment district.
Cannabis in Virginia
Why the strong push for cannabis reform in Virginia? Recreational cannabis exists in a gray area in the state. In 2021, the Virginia legislature voted to legalize personal cannabis use and possession. Helmed by a Democratic governor and with both chambers of the General Assembly within Democratic control, Virginia became the first Southern state to legalize recreational cannabis. However, at the time, legislators failed to establish parameters for a retail recreational marijuana market, instead planning to take up the issue the following year. That didn’t happen, as Republicans took control of the House, and voters elected a Republican governor.
Gov. Youngkin has made it clear during his time in office that he is “not interested” in legalizing marijuana sales in Virginia. Republicans have blocked the required reenactment of a regulatory framework for retail cannabis sales. The result? It’s a sort of marijuana Wild West. Illegal and unlicensed marijuana retailers continue to pop up across the state, further compounded by legal recreational retail in Washington, D.C., and Maryland.
Sen. Lucas wants to take a firm stand on the issue and says there needs to be movement on the legal cannabis marketplace front in Virginia. After November’s election, Democrats are set to have the majority in the House and the Senate. Advocates hope that is enough to move marijuana sales forward. Yet, Governor Youngkin may have something to say about that given his anti-cannabis stance, and any bill that passes both chambers could face a veto that Democrats don’t have the votes to override. Tying support for the sports district to support for legalizing retail cannabis sales is one tactic Democrats may consider forcing the governor’s hand and pushing both projects into the net.
Although many citizens support cannabis reform in Virginia, tying support to establishing a cannabis retail market in exchange for supporting a new sports district that proponents say could pump millions of dollars into the Virginia economy could be a dicey proposition. Still, as both sides have attractive bargaining chips to play, this is one story to pay close attention to.