One week after Virginia lawmakers kicked off the first legislative sessions of 2019 with a pair of bills to legalize and decriminalize cannabis, the lawmaker who introduced them is admitting defeat. Virginia Delegate Stephen Heretick, a Democrat representing the state’s 79th District, called Wednesday “a sad day for Virginia” when he announced via Facebook that both bills were dead. Heretick also vowed to continue fighting for legalization and decriminalization. But he stressed the need for more vocal, public support from his colleagues in the legislature.
Virginia Remains a Prohibition State After Pair of Bills Fail
At the start of the year, it looked like Virginia was finally ready to budge on the issue of cannabis. There had been signs of piecemeal progress. Lawmakers had succeeded in at least establishing an “affirmative defense” protection for medical cannabis patients and caregivers. Short of legalizing medical cannabis access, the affirmative defense bill gave patients and caregivers a way to negate any criminal liability for possessing cannabis. Still, the provision only covers certain, very-low THC cannabis oils containing 15 percent or more CBD or THC-A.
With that small but important foothold, Delegate Heretick wanted to see if 2019 would be the year when legalization, or at least decriminalization, could break through the legislative stonewall. His two bills, introduced at the start of the session, gave lawmakers plenty of time, until February 23, for consideration. Ultimately, committee members took less than a week to defeat both proposals. There’s no way lawmakers could have fairly considered and debated Heretick’s proposals in that timeframe. Instead, they rejected both bills out of hand.
Here’s how Heretick’s bills would have changed Virginia. HB 2371 would have established a regulated cultivation, distribution and retail industry. It would have set broad personal limits for personal possession and use, including home cultivation. Overall, it would have represented an extreme departure from the norm in Virginia. Yet the 150-page bill, defeated in committee a week after Heretick introduced it, covers its bases. It proposed a “seed-to-sale” tracking system, a 15 percent tax rate on retail sales and a ban on public consumption. In other words, something for everyone on the other side of the issue. And definitely plenty worth discussing.
Lawmaker Vows to Continue Pushing for Decriminalization, Legalization
If HB2 371 is Heretick aiming high, HB 2079 is the low-ball offer—and therefore more “pragmatic,” from a legislative point of view. HB 2079 is a simple decriminalization bill. It would have reduced possession to a civil infraction with a $50 fee for first-time offenses. “Weed tickets.” Committee lawmakers killed that proposal, too.
While calling it “a sad day for Virginia,” Heretick also said the defeat marked “just the beginning of the fight.”
Heretick is being modest. A Virginia delegate since 2016, this year’s legislation is hardly his first attempt to pass a decrim bill. He’s been in this fight. But 2019 is his first push for full legalization. It’s a bold move, designed to trigger a conversation and help the lawmaker gain more visible support. “I have heard from thousands of Virginians this week who have flooded my office with calls, emails, visits and social media posts, sharing their personal stories,” the delegate wrote on Facebook.
Delegate Heretick is confident he has the “quiet support” of his colleagues in Richmond. With state legislative elections coming up in November, however, few delegates had the courage to stand with Heretick. If reticent lawmakers listen more closely to their constituents, they stand to find some.