RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Cannabis advocates are sharing their concerns about confusion regarding Virginia’s marijuana laws, following a raid by Richmond police of agricultural supplier Happy Trees’ warehouse.
On Thursday, Feb. 9, authorities executed a search warrant for marijuana and psilocybin at the Roane Street warehouse. Individuals who said they were attending an event there described being detained and questioned, without regard for those who had medical marijuana cards.
Although arrests were not initially made, Happy Trees co-founder Josiah Ickes was taken into custody the following Wednesday, Feb. 15, and charged with conspiracy for the possession with intent to manufacture a schedule I or II substance, as well as conspiracy for the distribution or possession with intent of marijuana in a quantity larger than five pounds.
“Cannabis is a life-saving medication for many Virginians, and producing an understandable and accessible framework for legalization will reduce the stigma for those who need it as medication,” Sarah Williams with Richmond Cannabis Community said in a statement sent to 8News. “Virginia is losing the opportunity to receive billions of dollars of tax revenue annually. Virginians are struggling to comply with the current state of Cannabis laws because they do not work the way they are written and they are confusing.”
As a former magistrate with the Supreme Court of Virginia, Williams told 8News on Friday how she previously aided in the law enforcement of cannabis law in the Commonwealth.
“There’s a lot of ignorance in law enforcement and in the legal community about drugs and about cannabis, and I became a medical patient myself after the law passed for the medical aspect of it,” Williams said. “Yes, it is still on the federal schedule. It is a drug you do need to be aware of what medications you’re taking and all kinds of things if you’re going to use it, and it should be used by adults, not by kids. But, at the same time, it’s not as scary as we were led to believe and as we were taught in the legal community.”
At the time of the Feb. 9 raid, conversations were still underway in the General Assembly regarding a bill that would have allowed for retail sales of marijuana in Virginia by 2024. However, that measure has since failed.
Following Ickes’ arrest, Richmond police sent out a release, which included a statement about the pop-up or so-called hangout events similar to that which authorities had raided:
There have been occasions in the city of Richmond where individuals set up “pop-up” events that allow for multiple “vendors” to come to one location and sell marijuana. These vendors are not licensed to sell marijuana, or any other illegal substance in the city of Richmond. These events pose a danger and a significant threat to the quality of life in our community and those who organize and/or participate will be investigated when information is received that they are occurring.
Richmond Police Department spokesperson on the arrest of Happy Trees co-founder Josiah Ickes
But Bill Tribble, who said he was at the Happy Trees event, argued that the response from authorities did not match up with the nature of the event.
“No criminals there, there’s no guns there, there’s no hard drugs there. Most people come and just listen to music, eat, and have a good time and socialize,” he said. “A lot of the vendors, you know, have been growing their whole lives. So, they grow for a lot of these medical places. But, you know, they’re just accepting donations and sharing some of their love with the community.”
Traditionally, there has been a weekly Tree Trade Thursday event at the Roane Street warehouse, where individuals could come out for food, music and seed trading “while enjoying cannabis in all its forms,” according to Happy Trees’ website.
The Code of Virginia prohibits the sale, gift, distribution or possession of marijuana with the intent to sell, give or distribute the substance.
There shall be a rebuttable presumption that a person who possesses no more than one ounce of marijuana possesses it for personal use.
If such person proves that he gave, distributed, or possessed with intent to give or distribute marijuana only as an accommodation to another individual and not with intent to profit thereby from any consideration received or expected nor to induce the recipient or intended recipient of the marijuana to use or become addicted to or dependent upon such marijuana, he is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Code of Virginia, § 18.2-248.1.
But, Code of Virginia § 4.1-1101.1. also addresses adult sharing of marijuana, so long as the quantity is less than an ounce.
“It’s very concerning because people are trying their best at this point to figure out a way to make things work in the existing structure that we have, and I just don’t know if the state is putting its focus in the right place,” Williams said. “People don’t even know what they can do, what they can’t do, and so people are kind of running afoul of the law, sometimes, not even intentionally.”
Williams argued that this confusion has created more room for so-called bad actors to operate.
“Richmond Cannabis Community seeks to implement a framework for legalization that will establish better health and safety standards and a cohesive, controlled white market, while creating a market that is accessible to small business entrepreneurs in addition to large corporations,” the group said in a statement to 8News. “While Cannabis remains on the federal schedule, many other states have legalized Cannabis used and retail, and Virginia can learn from their successes and failures.”
Tribble also noted that Virginians with medical marijuana cards can struggle to afford the substance because of a lack of competition in the market, as well as a lack of insurance coverage.
“Richmond is one of the last places to really figure out what’s going on and what should be legal, what’s not. It puts us in a really big bind because we have nowhere to go, nowhere to hang out, nowhere to get legal marijuana, except for those places that charge extremely high prices,” he said. “The sooner we come to some type of legalization laws, problems like this wouldn’t have happened.”
In 2021, Virginia became the first Southern state to legalize marijuana. But, since then, nearby governments, such as that in Washington, D.C. have also changed their laws to allow for the possession of the substance for those 21 and older in quantities up to 2 oz., as well as the decriminalization of psilocybin, or mushrooms.
8News reached out to Richmond police for an update on the investigation stemming from the Happy Trees raid and Ickes’ subsequent arrest. A spokesperson said that the investigation was still active, and that additional updates could not be provided because the information was sealed by a judge.