Virginia Beach is seeking clarity on cannabis regulations

VIRGINIA BEACH – After state legislatures relaxed marijuana regulations last year, Virginia Beach city leaders are trying to prevent further law changes. They recently established a cannabis task force and are supporting state legislation taxing cannabis sales. Earlier this month, the council invited experts to answer questions at a meeting.

Jeremy Preiss, head of regulatory policy for the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority, said at the meeting that Virginia Beach is already in a unique position when it comes to cannabis.

“Where Virginia Beach differs from other communities is in the scale of what you have in front of you,” Preiss told council members. “You are an attractive target; A lot of people come to the area to relax, have a good time and party.”

The General Assembly legalized marijuana in Virginia in 2021 with certain limitations and conditions. It can be used and shared by adults 21+ in a dormitory but not in public. Adults 21 and older are allowed to grow up to four plants per household, and the only legal way to buy marijuana in Virginia is through medicinal retail.

The General Assembly did not accept the proposal Legislation needed to create a retail marijuana market, but it could revisit the issue in the 2023 session, which begins in January.

When retail sales are eventually legalized in Virginia, communities across the state will decide whether to allow stores and enact zoning laws to control them.

The illegal use and sale of cannabis has been a source of frustration for some Virginia Beach tourism industry executives, who raised concerns about the smell of marijuana unleashed from hotel balconies and waterfront “pop-up” shops. It’s also not uncommon to see people brazenly smoking weed on the Boardwalk.

They have also questioned the potential impact legalized sales could have on a “family-friendly” resort area.

Alderman Guy Tower brought these concerns to City Council, urging the creation of a task force that will review state laws and collect public input. It could also advise the city council on possible zoning laws to control the sale.

At the council meeting, Preiss addressed questions about the current state regulations. His organization controls, among other things, the possession, sale and transportation of cannabis in the Commonwealth. Council member Michael Berlucchi asked Preiss about the legality of an existing venue where Berlucchi believes customers smoke and share cannabis.

“If people want to have a few people in their house to get high, that’s allowed, but a public consumption lounge is taboo under current law,” Preiss said.

The lack of a provision in state law for the legal sale of marijuana has led to illegal activity, said Jason Blanchette, owner of Sage Kitchen in Virginia Beach and president of the Virginia Cannabis Association, in a recent interview.

“We can’t put that genie back in the bottle,” Blanchette said. “We have to figure out how to regulate that.”

He and the members of the association bend the ear to state legislators to fully legalize marijuana. You want to help shape the future of the industry.

“We want to make sure there’s a seat at the table for Virginia farmers and Virginia small businesses,” Blanchette said.

Meanwhile, retail sales of legal medical marijuana are booming in the Commonwealth.

New York-based Columbia Care operates medical marijuana dispensaries on Hampton Roads. The company is one of four processors in the state.

More than 45,000 Virginians are registered as patients using medicinal cannabis. At Hampton Roads, Columbia Care’s only store in Virginia Beach, Cannabist serves 3,000 veterans, Ngiste Abebe, director of public policy at Columbia Care, said at the council meeting.

“I’ve seen how cannabis can change lives in our patients,” she said. “I also think we need to be very careful about consuming responsibly and making sure people are aware of both the risks and the benefits of the plant.”

Virginia operations manager Ray Hernandez poses for a portrait in a grow room at Cannabist's medical marijuana cultivation facility in Portsmouth, Virginia on November 15, 2022.

On a recent weekday, about 10 patients were queuing outside The Cannibist on Birdneck Road. On an average day, 200 to 300 people shop there, said Ray Hernandez, Columbia Care pharmacist.

Hernandez said pain, anxiety and sleep problems are among some of the conditions patients have experienced to obtain a medical certificate from a licensed physician, which is required to enter the store.

Once inside, patients can describe their symptoms and discuss with the staff the type of relief they are seeking in order to obtain the most suitable marijuana product for them.

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Large wall menus offer a plethora of choices, from pre-rolled joints (two for $17) to gummies (12 for $50) to vaping oils (0.5 gram for $50) and the traditional marijuana bud, also called “flower”. (3.5 grams for $50). The products are not covered by insurance plans, but Cannibist offers discounts for eligible patients.

Doses are capped at 10 milligrams of THC, the psychoactive compound found in cannabis. Products are third-party lab tested and approved by a government body.

All Cannabist products are grown and manufactured in a Portsmouth facility where each plant is traced from seed to sale. Rooms within the 65,000-square-foot building are dedicated to each stage of a marijuana plant’s growth cycle. Temperature, light, ventilation and nutrients are closely monitored by a team of trained gardeners.

Medical marijuana buds are packaged at Cannabist's medical marijuana cultivation facility in Portsmouth, Virginia on November 15, 2022.  The system will pack 30 containers every 60 seconds.

There is also additional space in the building “to prepare for recovery,” Hernandez said during a recent tour of the facility.

Currently, Columbia Care is cultivated only for those with a medical certification. But the lines at Cannabist stores are getting longer and longer.

“This program, which is the only way to legally access retail marijuana, is growing by leaps and bounds,” Preiss told the city council. “It’s the only game in town.”

Stacy Parker, 757-222-5125, [email protected]