Virginia GOP Governor Vetoes Marijuana Parental Rights Bill That Passed Legislature With Bipartisan Support

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) vetoed a bill on Friday that would have prevented the state from using marijuana alone as evidence of child abuse or neglect, dealing a setback to advocates who’ve spent years working to enact the reform.

Youngkin had until midnight Friday to sign the bill, HB 833, veto it or let it take effect without his signature. He also could have sent the bill back to lawmakers with a request for amendments.

Around 8 p.m., his office announced that he’d vetoed the bill. It was among action he took on 84 bills—64 of which he signed, eight of which he vetoed and 12 of which he sent back with amendments.

“The proposed legislation, aiming to address a non-existent problem, has potential consequences that may expose children to harm,” Youngkin wrote in a veto message about the cannabis parental rights bill.

“Child protective service (CPS) referrals rarely, if ever, involve screening solely based on parents’ legal use of controlled substances or marijuana,” he added. “Instead, cases typically encompass additional risk factors like impaired supervision, access to drugs or drug paraphernalia, or a parent’s inability to meet the child’s basic needs. The inherent risk of unintended consequences, potentially endangering child safety by dissuading local departments of social services from implementing necessary protective measures, disrupts the balanced approach of current CPS policies, thus jeopardizing the well-being of vulnerable children.”

If enacted, the legislation would have also provided that drug testing in child custody and visitation matters “shall exclude testing for any substance permitted for lawful use by an adult” under the state’s alcohol, cannabis and drug laws. A person’s “lawful possession or consumption” of those substances, the bill says, “shall not serve as a basis to restrict custody or visitation unless other facts establish that such possession or consumption is not in the best interest of the child.”

An enactment clause would have directed the state Board of Social Services to amend its regulations, guidance documents and other materials to comply with the provisions of the bill.

The governor argued in his veto message that the measure “undermines the tangible link between substance use and harm to children, evident in the increased calls to poison control and emergency room visits for children consuming cannabis-infused substances following the authorization of personal marijuana possession.”

“The blanket exemption further places children at risk by potentially endangering their welfare,” he wrote. “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.”

On its path to the governor’s desk, the legislation won unanimous or near-unanimous approval in votes on the Senate floor. The House was more divided, with Democrats generally in favor, though the proposal garnered some Republican votes, as well.

The bill now returns to the legislature, where two thirds of both houses will have to approve it in order to override Youngkin’s veto. A companion Senate version of the measure, SB 115, also passed the legislature this session and has not yet been transmitted to the governor’s desk.

Advocates said Youngkin’s veto came as a blow after all the effort they put into crafting the bill and getting it through the legislature—including incorporating feedback from Senate lawmakers and the governor’s office itself.

“Disappointed doesn’t describe how it feels for the veto to come down after two years of pushing this proposal,” Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of the group Marijuana Justice, told Marijuana Moment. “We will not stop working to peel back the layers family policing through outdated marijuana laws. On behalf of the Commonwealth, [we] apologize to the families that will feel this impact while the administration waits another year to align family policy with current decriminalization.”

She added that organizers “will be back next year and every year until we get it right.”

JM Pedini, NORML’s development director and executive director for Virginia NORML, pushed back against Youngkin’s assertion that the bill seeks to solve a “non-existent problem.”

“Our office has received numerous calls and emails from parents who have lost custody and or visitation of their children due solely to their lawful use of medical cannabis, not from CPS intervention, but during custody battles,” Pedini told Marijuana Moment. “This bill would have made clear to the courts that lawful and responsible cannabis use is not sufficient reason to deny custody or visitation. This bill is necessary and was introduced to address actual harm being done to Virginia parents and children. To those families torn apart, we will continue fighting for you.”

The legislation is among a number of marijuana-related measures that will land on Youngkin’s desk this session. Others include a proposal to legalize and regulate retail cannabis sales to adults, resentence people serving time for past cannabis offenses and protect public-sector workers from employment discrimination based on lawful medical marijuana use.

As a result of legislative procedures, the governor has more time to act on the other proposals. But earlier this week, a sponsor of the retail sales legislation said that bill could go “up in smoke” after an unrelated deal with the governor soured.

The governor’s office had repeatedly said Youngkin wasn’t on board with the sales proposal, however. In a recent statement to Marijuana Moment, his press secretary pointed to Youngkin’s comments earlier this year in which “he said he doesn’t have a lot of interest in pressing forward with marijuana legalization.”

Given the governor’s broader silence on cannabis this session, it’s also not clear which way he leans on the other marijuana proposals.

Use, possession and limited cultivation of cannabis by adults is already legal in Virginia, the result of a Democrat-led proposal approved by lawmakers in 2021. But there’s nowhere for adults to legally buy the drug. Illicit stores have thus sprung up to meet consumer demand, with some estimates valuing the unregulated market at roughly $3 billion.

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