The recently created Virginia Cannabis Control Authority’s mission, educational efforts, regulatory authority – and the limitations of its power – were in the spotlight during a town hall meeting Wednesday evening in Roanoke.
The authority was established in 2021 by the same Virginia legislation that is perhaps better known for legalizing adults possessing small amounts of marijuana and cultivating up to four marijuana plants at home for personal use.
The authority describes itself on its website as “independent, apolitical subdivision of the Commonwealth dedicated to promoting public health and safety and protecting consumers through balanced and inclusive cannabis regulation, policy, and education.”
“We’re really trying to generate credible information about cannabis, particularly its public safety and public health implications, and craft rules that are fair, inclusive, balanced,” Jeremy Preiss, the authority’s acting head and chief officer of regulatory, policy and external affairs, said Wednesday.
Wednesday’s two-hour meeting at the Roanoke Higher Education Center was led by Preiss; Jake Shuford, the authority’s legislative and regulatory manager; authority board member Bette Brand, founder and CEO of Roanoke-based Strategic Consulting, LLC; and Jessica Seier, the authority’s public affairs manager.
Two recent, significant developments for the authority were noted Wednesday: As of Jan. 1, 2024, the authority will assume regulatory oversight of the state’s medical cannabis program from the state Board of Pharmacy, and while the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services remains responsible for regulating the sale of hemp products, the CCA will soon begin regulating advertising related to hemp and marijuana.
But the CCA’s budget to execute its mission remains to be seen. Under the current budget, the authority had about $8 million for fiscal year 2023 and is set to have $8.2 million in fiscal year 2024. As lawmakers in the Virginia General Assembly continue to negotiate the next state budget, Preiss said he has heard of one proposal floated to reduce the authority’s share to $3 million annually.
“I do know that cutting our budget to around $3 million will make it very difficult to carry out public safety and public health initiatives that we have been tasked to do by the General Assembly,” Preiss said.
Among those initiatives is a campaign now underway to emphasize safe driving habits. That follows a survey of approximately 800 Virginians that showed, among other things, that 30% of respondents said they believe using marijuana makes them a safer driver and 14% have driven while high a few times or more.
“Think about that the next time you’re driving down [Interstate] 81. It’s kind of unsettling,” Preiss said.
The campaign – which began with digital display ads and is now moving to billboards and eventually television, radio and streaming services – uses slogans such as “Plan on getting high? Plan a sober ride,” and, “A little buzz can cost a lot.”
The authority also offers a variety of fact sheets and educational resources on its website, cca.virginia.gov.
Sixteen people at Wednesday’s meeting offered questions or comments, either in person or online, on a variety of topics, including how to educate children about cannabis; how to improve the state’s medical cannabis program, particularly in Southwest Virginia; and the importance of ensuring Virginia’s small businesses are included as the cannabis industry continues to develop.
A common theme of Preiss’ answers was that the authority is interested in hearing from anyone who has ideas to bring to the table but that its powers are limited by the Virginia General Assembly.
One online participant, who identified himself as Cody Thompson of Roanoke-based Green Thumb Consulting, asked what the CCA is doing to help people get cannabis seeds in Virginia legally.
“In a word – nothing, because that’s the Code [of Virginia],” Preiss replied. “That’s what legislators have passed. You have identified a truly quirky aspect of what’s been created here in Virginia.”
Preiss noted that current law allows adults to possess small amounts of marijuana but they can’t buy it at retail stores. They can grow plants at home but can’t purchase seeds.
Ian Hill, a farmer in Roanoke County, said cannabis is first an agricultural product and asked how the authority would help save small farms in Virginia as the average age of farmers continues to rise.
“My generation’s not interested in farming,” Hill said.
Preiss said that would be partly driven by whether retail sales ever become legalized.
“We’re acutely aware that the only sustainable cannabis programs are the ones that are inclusive and competitive,” he said.
Karen Pillis, representing the Roanoke Prevention Alliance, said her organization’s goal is to decrease youth substance abuse. She asked what the CCA would do to create enforcement procedures or increase education to prevent youth access to marijuana.
Preiss said that when the authority begins to oversee advertising, there will be restrictions on advertising – it can’t be within a certain distance of schools, community centers or places of worship, and it can’t target people under 21.
Calling youth health “unquestionably important,” Preiss said the authority will need to hire someone to oversee advertising regulation due to its statewide scope.
“We are committed to implementing those rules as aggressively as we can,” he said.
Another attendee at the meeting, Misty Vickers, said she is concerned about how the authority will set the narrative regarding marijuana usage once it begins oversight of the medical program. She said she doesn’t want the authority to “demonize” cannabis.
“We’re honored to be entrusted with administering a medical program,” Preiss responded. “We’re not intending to demonize the medical use of cannabis. We’re not intending to demonize the use of cannabis writ large, but particularly with respect to medical.”
The authority is planning town halls in other parts of Virginia in the coming months, according to the CCA.