A referendum will go on this November’s ballot in Amherst County, determining if the industry comes in.
AMHERST – Now that Virginia’s legalized marijuana, cities and counties have to decide what they want to allow. Are they willing to let dispensaries, farms, manufacturers or wholesalers set up shop in their area? Or will they put a ban in place? Amherst County officials want to leave that question up to the voters.
During their Tuesday meeting, the Amherst County Board of Supervisors unanimously decided to put a referendum on the November ballot. While the wording’s not finalized, it would simply ask voters if they want the industry in Amherst County. That decision came after some lengthy discussion, outlining the pros and cons of bringing marijuana in.
Supervisor David Pugh Jr. said he saw both sides. If Amherst County allows marijuana sales, then they get the tax revenue.
“[If not], you’re going to lose that tax revenue or what have you,” Pugh said. “You won’t have those establishments in the county, and that may be a good thing, you know.”
There’s also the question of fairness, Supervisor Claudia Tucker pointed out.
“I would just hate to see Amherst County farmers not be able to produce a crop that a neighboring county could produce,” Tucker said.
Pugh agreed, pointing out the potential for future pharmaceutical-grade facilities that could supply jobs to the area.
Would a Referendum Make Sense?
But would a referendum help or just add confusion? The group split on that part.
“I think the part of the referendum process would be the campaigning on both sides to draw that specific point out: that it’s already legal,” Amherst County Attorney Mark Popovich said. “All we’re asking you is, ‘Do you want to try to gain some benefit by being able to impose some reasonable regulations on where a dispensary can be located, impose certain taxes that you will actually – the county – can then benefit from the sale, rather than losing it to an adjoining county?’”
Supervisor Tom Martin questioned whether or not the main issue in the referendum would properly resonate with voters.
“The issue I have with it is – and I think we’ve been talking about this – is if I left here and went across the county line to County X and purchased and brought [marijuana] back [to] Amherst County, it’s still perfectly legal. But we didn’t get any of the tax revenues off of it,” Martin said. “And I think – and I’m not decided one way or the other yet – but I think the referendum, people are going to get confused and the vote will be more on whether or not marijuana should’ve been legalized or not. And it’s already been legalized, right? All we’re talking about is whether or not we should sell it in the county.”
Part of the confusion could also occur because of the timeline involved. Marijuana possession becomes legal in Virginia on July 1. However, if a referendum happens, any changes won’t happen until 2024.
What Would The Limits Be?
Along with the legalization of marijuana in the commonwealth, there are still certain limitations.
Virginia will issue the following number of licenses statewide: 400 for dispensaries, 25 for wholesalers, 60 for manufacturers and 450 for cultivation facilities or farms.
“It’s not going to be that you have 400 [dispensaries] in Amherst and 400 in Botetourt,” Popovich said. “It’s 400 for the entire state.”
The county attorney further noted that the 400 dispensaries would likely encompass larger facilities, not the average, standalone vape shop.
“There’s a limitation on the permits that will be issued by the state. So by a certain extent, it is going to get regulated in terms of there won’t be a marijuana shop on every corner. That’s not what we’re talking about here,” Popovich said. “When we’re talking about dispensaries, what we’re talking about are larger operations.”
Tucker expanded on the details that could set apart a dispensary from another retail establishment.
“A dispensary is like going to a high-end tobacco shop or cigar shop or something like that,” Tucker said. “So it is a retail store, but they’re very limited in scope.”
The Amherst County Referendum
While a proposed referendum in Amherst County would not change the statewide legalization on marijuana, it would give county residents a voice on the substance’s sale.
Supervisor L.J. “Jimmy” Ayers spoke about witnessing past experiences with marijuana. He pushed for the people of Amherst County to decide if the industry comes.
“If the community wants a tax base off of it, they’ll vote yes for it. If they don’t want the ability for their children or grandchildren to go out there and have an easier ability to get their hands on it, then they will say no,” Ayers said. “So I think it’s up to the citizens of this county to have their say whether we have that as a part of our community or we don’t. That’s my feeling.”
The remaining board members agreed, instructing staff to work with the registrar’s office on what the referendum’s final wording would say.
Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]