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Virginia Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Workplace Protection Bill For Firefighters And Other Public Sector Workers

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has signed legislation to allow public sector workers like firefighters and teachers to use legal medical marijuana without fear of losing their jobs. The move comes days after the governor vetoed separate bills to legalize recreational cannabis sales.

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The governor signed HB 149, sponsored by Del. Dan Helmer (D), and SB 391, from Sen. Stella Pekarsky (D), on Monday, his deadline for action on the measures. He also signed another measure, HB 815, making incremental adjustments to the state’s existing medical marijuana system.

The governor, however, also vetoed a separate Senate bill on Monday that would have prevented the use of marijuana alone from being considered evidence of child abuse or neglect. Youngkin vetoed the House version of that bill a month ago.


As for employment protections, private workers already are protected in the commonwealth from being fired merely for using legal medical marijuana. But Helmer, who sponsored that law three years ago, has said the bill “unintentionally did not protect public-sector employees.” HB 149 and SB 391 will rectify that oversight, extending the protections to positions such as firefighters, maintenance workers and teachers who use cannabis to treat medical conditions or diseases.

Employers will still be able to forbid marijuana use on the job and take disciplinary action against any employee whose work is impaired because of cannabis use. The proposal also will not change current law regarding federal workers.

Initially the House version of the legislation also would have included protections for law enforcement workers, but that provision was removed through an amendment and was made identical to the Senate bill.

JM Pedini, NORML’s development director and the executive director for Virginia NORML, said the new law “will protect the jobs of these heroes who risk their lives to keep Virginians safe.”

“Virginia’s firefighters, emergency services providers, and civil servants across the commonwealth deserve the same job protections currently provided to private employees for their lawful and responsible use of medical cannabis,” Pedini said. “This is a long overdue victory.”

Public employees testified to lawmakers during the legislative session that workers’ use of medical marijuana has been beneficial, for example replacing prescription opioids and alcohol. Joe Mirabile, a representative of Virginia’s Professional Firefighters, for example, spoke in favor of the proposal during a committee.

“My members have reported that they’re relying on alcohol far less, they’re sleeping more at home and they’re seeing other positive effects, such as reduction of joint and muscle pain without having to use opioid prescriptions,” he said.

Complicating the issue for many policymakers is that there’s still no rapid, reliable test to detect cannabis impairment.

The public sector employee protection proposal passed the Senate with strong support—most recently on a 26–13 floor vote—and also had broad support in the House, passing floor votes there on 78–20 and 82–17 margins.

The parental protections bill, SB 115, which Youngkin vetoed, would have prevented the state from using legal marijuana use alone as evidence of child abuse or neglect. It would have further provided that drug testing in child custody and visitation matters “shall exclude testing for any substance permitted for lawful use by an adult” under the state’s alcohol, cannabis and drug laws.

A person’s “lawful possession or consumption” of those substances, it said, “shall not serve as a basis to restrict custody or visitation unless other facts establish that such possession or consumption is not in the best interest of the child.”

Lawmakers sent an expedited version of the proposal to the governor in HB 833, which Youngkin vetoed in early March. SB 115 had identical language but was transmitted after the session adjourned, giving Youngkin’s office more time to act.

Following the veto of HB 833, Del. Rae Cousins (D), the bill’s sponsor, accused the governor of “turning his back on the needs of our children and neglecting their well-being by encouraging the courts to move forward with unnecessary family separations.”

It’s not yet clear whether lawmakers might attempt to override the governor’s vetoes. The parental rights bill had overwhelming support in the Senate—passing a floor vote unanimously—but the House was more divided on the proposal, approving it on a 54–45 vote mostly along party lines.

As for HB 815, it makes a variety of adjustments to the state’s existing medical marijuana system, for example extending the maximum expiration date on cannabis products from six months to one year, lowering the amount of required experience for some pharmaceutical processing positions and expanding the program’s privacy protections.

Youngkin on Monday week also returned a budget bill sent to him by lawmakers, adding a raft of amendments. Relative to marijuana, some of the changes simply removed expenses and revenue related to a legal sales bill that he vetoed late last month. Another amendment removes a Democrat-led provision that would have redirected funding from the Office of Diversity, Opportunity and Inclusion (formerly Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) to a marijuana business loan program unless “equity” was put back into a state diversity officer’s job title by this summer.

The governor’s office claimed that the provision was not necessary because the position has been filled, though the office still does not use the word “equity.”

In addition to vetoing the legal sales bill, Youngkin also blocked a separate bill last month to provide resentencing relief for people incarcerated for cannabis.

Use, possession and limited cultivation of cannabis by adults is already legal in Virginia, the result of a Democrat-led proposal approved by lawmakers in 2021. But Republicans, after winning control of the House and governor’s office later that year, subsequently blocked the required reenactment of a regulatory framework for retail sales. Since then, illicit stores have sprung up to meet consumer demand.

In his veto message, however, the governor wrote that “the proposed legalization of retail marijuana in the Commonwealth endangers Virginians’ health and safety.”

“Addressing the inconsistencies in enforcement and regulation in Virginia’s current laws,” Youngkin continued, ”does not justify expanding access to cannabis, following the failed paths of other states and endangering Virginians’ health and safety.”

The bill’s lead sponsors, Del. Paul Krizek (D) and Sen. Aaron Rouse (D), said the governor’s veto of the sales bill was “dangerous and irresponsible” as well as “reckless and negligent.”

But Krizek told Marijuana Moment at the time that despite the veto, he plans to support the reform again next session.

“We really did craft a wonderful piece of bicameral legislation that even garnered bipartisan support, albeit not as many members as I would have expected, but that was probably due to Governor’s antipathy toward it,” he said last week. “So, we have a bill we can introduce next session that will only need some minor adjustments (I did see some small improvements we can make) and gives us a head start.”

Ahead of the veto, the governor had hinted at his intentions. About a week earlier, Youngkin told a reporter: “Anybody who thinks I’m going to sign that legislation must be smoking something.”

Some had higher hopes for Youngkin when he was first elected in 2021.

“With Governor-elect Youngkin previously stating that he would uphold the will of the people, and focus on creating a ‘rip-roaring economy,’ we are fully confident that he and the people of Virginia will continue to make progress,” Jim Cacioppo, the CEO, chairman and founder of multistate cannabis company Jushi Holdings, said in a statement at the time.

In an email to Marijuana Moment after last month’s veto, however, Jushi’s chief strategy director, Trent Woloveck, described Youngkin as “a sanctimonious culture warrior.”

A sales bill did advance through the Democratic-controlled Senate last session, but it stalled in committee in the House, which at the time had a GOP majority.


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