RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Anthony Mijares is a small business owner in Richmond who’s dabbled in a few businesses including restaurants such as Burger Bros., a marketing and signage store called Richmond Signscapes and most recently a 7,000-square-foot seed-to-sale dispensary called Old Manchester Hemp Co.
Mijares, like many others, sought to become a cannabis grower after Virginia lawmakers moved to introduce medicinal use of marijuana in March 2017, expanded it in 2018, decriminalized it in 2020 and then legalized it in 2021.
Although the medicinal industry has shown growth and the retail sale of marijuana is scheduled to begin in 2024, additional legislation is already coming forward that could drastically change the industry.
Today in Virginia, adults ages 21 and above are allowed to possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. Virginians can also share up to one ounce with another adult who is at least 21 as long as the exchange is gifted and not sold, cultivate up to four plants per household and participate in the medical cannabis program, which allows purchasing from dispensaries.
Public consumption, possession, consumption in a motor vehicle, selling or purchasing cannabis or cannabis products outside of said dispensaries is still illegal. Legal retail sales are permitted only by dispensaries licensed by the state.
Those companies are Cannabist, Columbia Care, GLeaf, RISE and Jushi. While these large companies dominate medical sales, small growers like Mijares are trying to carve their own stake in the industry by growing hemp.
Growing hemp in Virginia requires only a license from the State Department of Agriculture. The license and regulations for hemp products differ from cannabis plants because they contain lower amounts of THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana that gets people high.
The next step for cannabis and civil rights activists is to push legislators to allow small growers such as Mijares to be able to sell products alongside the big medicinal distributors, but a majority of measures involving cannabis in the commonwealth were killed in the General Assembly’s regular session this year, leaving Mijares and others on the bench while larger companies play ball.
“We’re not going to get everything at once,” Mijares told The Times-Dispatch. “I think of it as micro and macro steps. At least we have something now and I’m hopeful adult-use products are around the corner.”
Before becoming a hemp agriculturist, Mijares served eight years as a combat medic in the Army. Originally from Walton Beach, Florida, Mijares settled in Richmond after multiple tours and sought medical assistance from Veterans Affairs to treat the physical and mental ailments he received during his service.
“When you go to the VA they give you a pill for every problem you had,” Mijares said. “Whether you had trouble sleeping, trouble eating, PTSD, whatever it was, they had a pill for it and they just didn’t work for me.”
It wasn’t until Mijares tried a medicinal hemp product that he received the pain relief he needed. Since then, Mijares has been a vocal advocate for the medicinal cannabis industry which has seen exponential growth in the commonwealth as evidenced by the number of people who are registered to use and purchase medicinal marijuana.
Since medical marijuana was introduced to the commonwealth, the Virginia Board of Pharmacy has issued 47,015 personal medical cannabis licenses from July 2020 to March 2021 – which excludes open applications according to the board’s FOIA officer.
The number of applications have also steadily risen over that 21-month period with an average of 2,709 applications a month, according to data obtained by The Times-Dispatch.
However in April, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed into a law a bill from the General Assembly that removes the requirement that Virginians register with the state’s Board of Pharmacy in order to be approved to buy cannabis products from approved sellers. The law goes into effect the first of July.
Patients are still required to register with the state and receive a written verification from a health care physician to purchase from medical dispensaries. Mijares sells products to registered medicinal users alongside products that follow state and federal guidelines. Some products such as grinders, rolling papers and smoking objects like vape cartridges can be sold to anyone over 18. Other products are still limited to users over 21.
To the naked eye, he and the large distributors appear to offer the same service, but they’re very different according to the state’s regulatory process.
“We get clients that come in who have pain from cancers or other ailments and we’re able to blend and mix things more than those other companies can,” Mijares said. “We really take an open approach.”
Mijares said he hopes to sell both medicinal products and recreational items once Virginia moves forward with legal sales and grants him a business license to do so.
The plants currently grown in his warehouse now are all lower in THC and classified as hemp products, but he hopes to transition to growing higher-grade cannabis as well.
Businesses interested in doing the same and applying for business license to sell cannabis can do so in 2023, according to the state’s Cannabis Control Authority.
However recently, the commonwealth has taken a turn on its stance on cannabis products and decriminalization.
Youngkin has outlined his framework for cracking down on materials that contain the substance known as Delta-8 – a material found in cannabis plants that used commercial products and were sold in Virginia dispensaries and are currently unregulated.
As the General Assembly mulls over bills to plug this industry loophole that’s grown in popularity among consumers, Youngkin has also proposed amendments to a piece of legislation that aims to restrict the potency of synthetic edibles made from hemp and sold in retail stores.
These amendments would create new criminal misdemeanor penalties for people with more than 2 ounces of marijuana, The Times-Dispatch reports.
Mijares said he supports regulation of these substances to a degree, but hopes Virginia lawmakers won’t take any step backward when it comes to decriminalization legislation.
Cannabis policy experts and activists are equally hopeful, but differ to some degree on strategy. JM Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, said going into 2022 the organization’s strategy was to submit multiple, small bills to pass through the legislature.
“As a person who serves as a policy expert to the legislative body that governs us, I will tell you that, what we expected and then what happened this year is pretty close to our expectations,” Pedini said. “We advised having important portions of legislative objectives parceled out into separate bills. That’s not the decision that the caucus made.”
Pedini said their organization is hopeful that leading voices will emerge in the House on cannabis rights as the special session commences and that in order for new cannabis legislation to pass, some compromises may have to take place in a divided caucus, as opposed to the united, Democratically controlled state that passed legislation in 2020 and 2021.
“We need to read the room,” Pedini said. “We’ve got to deal with the reality of the political arena of Virginia and understand that, you know, the time to do all these far reaching and progressive things, that was 2021. Now you’ve got a divided government.”
As Pedini looks for compromises among lawmakers and legislation, the Marijuana Justice Team’s Executive Director Chelsea Higgs Wise continues to push for the vision set forth in 2020 and 2021 – to legalize marijuana under a social equity lens that includes small, Black and minority-owned small business, and criminal expungement at the forefront.
“The champions of the 2021 legislation need to really stand firm on being champions for what they proposed versus changing their tune when we don’t have the leadership,” Higgs Wise said “We’re hoping that there are legislators who will answer the call to carry an equity bill next year, even if they know this will be a long haul.”
Higgs Wise’s organization administration is also calling to prevent large cannabis companies from establishing an early market. Instead Higgs Wise is calling on legislators to focus on resentencing and reuniting families, according to a letterendorsed by 40 like-minded organizations.
Higgs Wise said if medicinal operators are able to sell exclusively before small operators then the opportunity for growth for small business owners will diminish as will the chance to develop an equitable market.
“To create a legal market that is equitable and has opportunities for everyone on Day One, when those medical operators and big folks get to sell (marijuana legally), that means Virginia has to do the work to allow (the small operator) to also be ready to sell as well,” Higgs Wise said.
As Pedini and Higgs Wise work toward completing their objectives, business owners such as Mijares are left to wonder what happens next.
“At this point I’m not worried yet. I think Virginia is still going to go through with making hemp and cannabis legal for adults,” Mijares said. “When I first started doing this, there was a lot of trial and error and it feels like that’s what’s happening now; trial and error.”