Indoor cultivation of cannabis, the preferred term for marijuana. Courtesy of Plantlady223.

What if the state of Virginia told the federal government to go take a hike?

Yes, I realized we tried that in 1861 and things didn’t turn out so well. Here’s a different idea, one that ideally both left and right should like.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, is one of the driving forces behind a bill that would enable more research into marijuana – the Medical Marijuana Research Act, which passed the House in early April and now awaits action in the Senate. As I’ve pointed out before, Congress is terribly inefficient. By comparison, the Virginia General Assembly, even with its current budget impasse, is a model of efficiency. Richmond operates on deadlines (even if some get stretched). A bill passed by the House of Delegates actually gets acted on by the state Senate. You may not like the disposition. It may get killed by a subcommittee at 7 a.m. It might get “laid on the table,” a polite way of killing it without saying so. But at least something will happen to it. In Washington, there’s no guarantee that a bill that has passed the House will ever get taken up by the Senate. I bet if we had a more deadline-focused Congress we’d have fewer members of Congress who mostly seem to yammer away on cable news or twitter away on Twitter and not actually legislate. But I digress.

My point is this: We don’t know if this bill will pass or not. We don’t even know if it will get voted on in the Senate. But the point Griffith was making seems a good one to me: As we set about legalizing cannabis on a state-by-state basis, we really ought to know what it is we’re legalizing.

Griffith, who may be right of center politically, comes from a middle ground on cannabis: He’s in favor of medical marijuana but against recreational weed. However, while Griffith says he thinks marijuana is useful for some ailments, he admits he can’t prove it. The reality, he says, is that neither side can prove anything because there’s been so little research into cannabis. “The DEA has made it so hard it just doesn’t happen,” Griffith said. As a result, the prohibitionists can’t prove marijuana is bad for you; the legalizers can’t prove it’s not.

Whether you’re for or against marijuana, Griffith thinks we need to know more about it. “Whether the government wants to admit it or not, more people have done research on heroin than marijuana,” he said. “Don’t you think we should at least find out whether we need a surgeon general’s warning?”

This requires what he calls some “intellectual honesty” from both sides – both sides need to be prepared for answers they don’t like. Yet somehow a coalition formed in the House to pass the bill by a 343-75 margin. If you’re an optimist, you can conclude there’s more intellectual honesty in Washington than you previously thought, right?

So what’s this got to do with Virginia? Maybe quite a bit.

Last year, the General Assembly – then under Democratic control – legalized recreational cannabis but put off creating the rules for a legal retail market. It’s complicated. The legislature could have set some future date for legalizing marijuana and had the retail regulations in place on Day One, but then we’d have been in a position of still busting people for something that we all knew would get legalized in a few years. Rather than do that, the legislature decided on immediate legalization, then coming back this year to draw up the rules for a retail market. What the Democrats in charge of the General Assembly in 2021 didn’t count on was that they wouldn’t be in charge come 2022. A little thing called last November’s election installed a Republican House of Delegates. To say those Republicans aren’t nearly as excited about legal cannabis as the Democrats were is an understatement. Things aren’t quite so clear-cut, though. Republicans are divided amongst themselves. Some Republicans of a more libertarian nature are fine with legalization; others are dead set against it. But they all disagree very much with the rules the Democrats wanted to impose, which were heavy on “social equity” aspects in the form of giving those with marijuana conviction records an advantage in licensing. Democrats saw that as making amends; Republicans saw it was rewarding someone for breaking the law.

We will not resolve those differences today – nor did the General Assembly resolve them in many days this year. As the great philosopher Jerry Reed once told us in a very different context, when it comes to working out the details of a retail market, “we’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there.”

(Ah, simpler times, right?)

So for the sake of argument, let’s assume that over the rest of the year, House Republicans are able to come up with some kind of plan for retail cannabis, and that this plan is acceptable to Senate Democrats. Or the other way around. Either works.

Here’s one thing legislators could do: They could set aside some percentage of the tax revenue from cannabis sales for research. We don’t know how much tax revenue that will be: The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission estimates $300 million a year. (Not that kind of joint, by the way.) Of course, it all depends on what the tax rate is, right? The U.S. Cannabis Report estimates right now that the black market in Virginia is about $1.8 billion worth of pot sales every year, although California has found that the more you tax and regulate the stuff, the fewer legitimate retailers you have and the more illegal dealers you have who can undercut the competition. We can repeal prohibition but we can’t repeal the free market. Whatever the tax rate is, there will be some revenue coming in. Of course, lots of different people have different ideas on how that revenue should be used – social equity programs here, school construction there, and here I’m adding one more: a smidge for marijuana research.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know how this would work, legality-wise, but then it’s unclear to me how states can legalize marijuana while the federal government doesn’t. I’ll leave that to the lawyers. I’m sure Attorney General Jason Miyares wouldn’t mind suing the Biden administration if the Drug Enforcement Administration said only the feds could research marijuana. But here’s what I’m thinking: Griffith’s question about wanting to know the long-term effects of marijuana remains a good one. It was such a good question in Washington that it united prohibitionists and legalizers. It ought to do the same in Richmond, with a twist: This research might be good for economic development.

I’m also not unaware that the Fralin Research Institute in Roanoke has become an international center for brain research, and that some aspects of that research involve addiction. Now the catch is that institute gets a lot of funding from the National Institute of Health. Nobody’s going to want to jeopardize that for some state funding. That’s probably true for any institution that gets federal funding, be it through NIH or the National Science Foundation. So what’s the solution? It seems clear to me: The state needs to set up an independent research center, unencumbered by federal funding and federal regulations. I’d also make the case that such a center ought to be in a part of the state where it could do the most economic good – i.e., Southwest or Southside. Any research dollars being spent in Virginia are good; any being spent in this part of Virginia are an especially good thing because that would pump money into a part of the state that’s trying to create a new economy. And if that center should discover some medical applications that can be commercialized — Griffith is among those convinced that medical marijuana has some benefits for people with certain conditions — then maybe those spin-offs will take root in a part of the state that could use new businesses.

There’s clearly going to be marijuana research somewhere. For years, researchers were restricted to only using marijuana grown at the University of Mississippi, which many consider to be low-quality weed that’s not representative of what’s actually getting rolled up and smoked. One researcher called it “anemic.” Last year, the DEA began loosening those restrictions and a Florida company called Bright Green Corp. was given “conditional approval” to grow marijuana for research purposes. That company promptly announced it would build a $300 million facility in New Mexico that’s projected to create 200 jobs by the time it opens in 2023. It’s unclear how many of those 200 jobs are on the research side and how many are on the growing side. Here’s what I do know: Bright Green’s facility is in Grants, New Mexico, a town of 9,163 about 78 miles from Albuquerque. In other words, it’s out in the country. Whatever the split of research jobs and agricultural jobs, that’s got to be an economic boost for a small town in New Mexico. The governor there sure seems mighty excited about it. Maybe our governor here would be, too. Glenn Youngkin is a marijuana skeptic; he also seems intent on promoting economic development. Here’s a way to do both, express a little bit of skepticism, create the retail market that we need to create, and boost economic development – as long as he’s open to the possibility that marijuana really does have some medicinal benefits. (In reality, given the length of clinical studies, any results will come long after he’s left office.)

So here’s the basic question: If Virginia can legalize marijuana, why can’t it legalize marijuana research, too? Think about it this way: If Virginia doesn’t use some small portion of the state’s revenue for research, we’re effectively saying we don’t care what the effects are. We’re also passing up an economic development opportunity – be it in research dollars or in billable hours.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.