A Virginia Senate committee voted unanimously in favor of advancing a bill on Wednesday that would prevent the state from using marijuana alone as evidence of child abuse or neglect. The change is meant to protect parents and guardians from discrimination around cannabis use and possession, which the commonwealth legalized in 2021.
The Senate Courts of Justice Committee, voted 15–0 to report the measure, SB 115, which is sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas (D). If it becomes law, the measure would further provide 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.”
According to a Department of Planning and Budget summary of the legislation, an enactment clause would direct the state Board of Social Services to amend its regulations, guidance documents and other materials to comply with the provisions of the bill.
The changes would incur no fiscal impact, the department’s statement says.
An identical measure, HB 833, passed the full House of Delegates in a 56–43 vote last month.
Chelsea Higgs Wise, of the advocacy group Marijuana Justice, which backed the bill, told Marijuana Moment she’s optimistic about its chances of being enacted. The governor’s administration gave suggestions last year, she said, which were taken into account along with feedback from the Senate committee.
The group also worked with Virginia NORML, which Wise said had reported that some medical marijuana patients had been impacted by the current law.
“We are excited that outdated prohibition laws are being changed in order to keep families together,” she said. “This is an important part of ending the drug war and decriminalization that’s critical for generational survival in communities targeted by law enforcement.”
Wise added that she’s “thankful for this legislature to take a bipartisan approach to family protections as we continue towards full, regulated legalization.”
Also proceeding through the legislature this session are two separate proposals to legalize cannabis sales in the state. Although use and possession are legal, efforts to allow commercial sales have been blocked by Republicans in the legislature in recent years. With Democrats in control of both chambers after last November’s elections, however, advocates are hopeful this could be the year a retail sales bill becomes law.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), however, said last month that he doesn’t have “any interest” in legalizing sales under either of the Democrat-led plans.
Despite many similarities the bills differ in key ways. Among them, Rep. Paul Krizek (D)’s bill in the House would allow up to five existing medical marijuana operators and up to 30 equity-focused microbusinesses to open retail sales to adults on January 1, 2025. A separate Senate bill introduced by Sen. Aaron Rouse (D), by contrast, would have retail stores open later in 2025 and not give special preference to medical or equity businesses.
The House measure would also prohibit outdoor cultivation entirely by licensed businesses, requiring all marijuana to be grown indoors, while the Senate measure would ban outdoor grows by larger cultivators but allow smaller licensees to grow outside.
Groups representing hemp farmers in the commonwealth support the Senate bill at this point, as it would allow entrepreneurs trying to get into the marijuana industry to open alongside medical marijuana businesses instead of entering the market later on.
Justice advocates also preferred the Senate bill initially, but changes in both bills have led some to switch their support to the House measure. Critics of the latest version of the Senate bill have pointed to a number of new criminal charges around marijuana in that measure, including at least one that would create a mandatory minimum sentence.
The differences between the bills could make for contentious negotiations as the session proceeds, despite the implicit veto threat from Youngkin.
—Marijuana Moment is tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.—
When he was first elected, Youngkin said he was “not against” allowing commercial sales categorically. He expressed that there were certain Democratic “non-starters,” such as provisions setting labor union requirements for marijuana businesses—and he wanted to address concerns from law enforcement—but he generally indicated that there was a bill he could support.
That expectation has been tempered during the beginning of the new year, however, with some—including Wise at Marijuana Justice—predicting the governor will veto any legal sales bill that lawmakers send him.
A sales bill did advance through the Democratic-controlled Senate last session, but it stalled in committee in the House, which at the time had a GOP majority.
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