Richmond rundown: Fariss votes against his own hemp bill, local DNA collection bill moves ahead

Delegate Matt Fariss hopes industrial hemp will be a crop that helps revitalize Southside, and now it’s legal for universities to grow it for research.
Illustration Jason Crosby Delegate Matt Fariss hopes industrial hemp will be a crop that helps revitalize Southside, and now it’s legal for universities to grow it for research. Illustration Jason Crosby

As the Virginia General Assembly enters its fourth week, we’ve got a look at how a few hot-button issues with local sponsors are faring.

Hemp bill moves ahead without sponsor’s nod

Delegate Matt Fariss (R-59th), who represents southern Albemarle, voted against a bill of which he was co-patron that would allow the production of industrial hemp.  In a House agriculture committee meeting January 28, the measure passed 17-5 and moves to the House floor.

Fariss said he still supports the bill, but voted against it because it needed to be amended. “We were blindsided in committee by the Commonwealth’s attorneys association,” he said, “and they raised serious objections that could have done damage to the bill’s chance of passing on the House floor.”

According to Fariss, police feared that people with pot would claim they had hemp, and to calm those fears, the bill will be amended to shift burden of proof that one is a licensed hemp grower from police to the grower. “I promised law enforcement we’d get this right,” he said, “that we were not trying to legalize marijuana, and not trying to make it hard on law enforcement.”

Jason Amatucci, founder and executive director of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition, said that prosecutors and law enforcement were watering down a bill that could be an economic boon for farmers. The original bill allowed licensed cultivation of cannabis sativa with a THC level of no more than 0.3 percent. Recreational pot has a THC level of 5 percent or much higher, and Amatucci scoffs at the idea that hemp growers who are registered with the state would be trying to grow marijuana, particularly since cross-pollination ruins both hemp and pot.

“We’ve got to get rid of the fear factor,” he said. “It’s time for the reefer madness to end. It’s very frustrating.”

Amatucci said he’d been contacted by a German company that wanted to open a plant making auto parts from hemp. “We just lost a plant,” he said. The plant will go to Kentucky, where senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell support hemp, Amatucci said.

Currently federal law allows hemp production for research purposes only. Said Fariss, “When the feds say it’s O.K. to grow, we’ll be ready to roll.”

Another bill to decriminalize pot did not get out of a Senate committee, although a recent Christopher Newport University survey shows that 71 percent of Virginians support decriminalization and 69 percent support medical marijuana.

Fariss explained the General Assembly’s reluctance to decriminalize. “I think a lot of us have a problem telling our children it’s O.K. to use mind-altering drugs,” said Fariss, “even though we know it’s clogging up the legal system.”

Along with the bill’s chief patron, Delegate Joseph Yost, and chief co-patron Fariss, the bill picked up another 33 co-patrons, including House Minority Leader David Toscano. Before the session, Toscano said he didn’t think the bill would make it out of subcommittee.

Toscano said he signed onto the bill out of respect for the legacy of Mitch Van Yahres, the former Charlottesville delegate who carried hemp bills for years. “It may be the time is right to pass a bill like this that would allow industry to pop up in southwest Virginia and create more diversification and opportunity for that region of the Commonwealth,” he said.

The Senate passed a similar hemp bill January 29, and Fariss said odds are good for the bill becoming law. “I would be willing to bet large sums of money it will pass in the House,” he predicted. “I don’t think it will have trouble in the Senate.”

DNA collection for misdemeanors still alive

Several bills to expand the types of convictions that require the collection of DNA samples are moving forward in the General Assembly. Delegates David Toscano and Rob Bell both carried bills to add Class 1 misdemeanor convictions to those crimes that require DNA analysis. Toscano’s bill has been incorporated into Bell’s bill, which passed the House Criminal Law subcommittee February 2, and moves on to the House Committee on Appropriations.

Over in the Senate, a similar bill carried by Mark Obenshain (R-26th) passed the Courts of Justice committee January 28 and it, too, moves to finance February 4. Unclear at this point are which Class 1 misdemeanors will be in the bills that must be reconciled between the House and Senate, and whether the cost of expansion will kill them.

Bill by bill

Here is a look at what measures are still kicking in Richmond, and what’s been killed in committee or on the floor of the House and Senate.

Fail: The House Committee on Commerce and Labor kills a proposal January 27 to raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10 over several years.

Fail: The same committee nixes a bill to ban pay discrimination based on gender.

Pass: Senate bill requiring universities to report sexual assault within 24 hours. The bill, carried by Senator Richard Black (R-Leesburg), passes the Senate’s Health and Education subcommittee January 26 and next goes to the Senate’s Courts and Justice committee.

Pass: A Senate bill that would keep convicted domestic abusers and stalkers from owning a gun for a year makes it out of the Courts of Justice committee January 28.

Fail: Deadbeat dads can keep buying guns because SB1108, which would have made that a no-no, doesn’t make it out of committee.

Pass: SB1349, which weakens oversight of Dominion Virginia Power by banning the State Corporation Commission from biennial review of rates through 2023, unanimously passes a Senate subcommittee January 29.

Pass: That same committee passes a measure January 29 that would allow possession of two marijuana derivatives to treat epilepsy if recommended by a doctor. The bill goes to the Senate Courts of Justice committee.

Pass: Protection from criminal charges for those reporting a drug overdose passes the Senate unanimously January 29.