A roundtable consisting of Virginia Tech faculty, local business owners along the hemp supply chain, and members of the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority met to discuss challenges and opportunities surrounding cannabis in Virginia.

The roundtable was part of the Vibrant Virginia program, a statewide initiative that focus on connecting urban and rural, improving collaborations between universities and communities, and creating a Virginia full of economic vitality.

Elli Travis, economic development specialist for the Center for Economic and Community Engagement, facilitated the session.

Participants focused on the importance of testing cannabis products to make sure they are safe for public consumption.

“To address the under-regulation of products, Virginia could require all products to be certified by a limited amount of regulated test labs in the state,” said Sarah Vogl, co-owner of Bear Dance Market, a smoothie café and cannabis store in Christiansburg. “This would keep things safe but would not be overly prohibitive.”

Challenges regarding medical marijuana also affect consumers around the state. The Virginia Board of Pharmacy originally viewed medical marijuana as a remedy that would be used by a small minority. However, the demand for medical marijuana has turned out to be much larger, with over 50,000 patients currently in Virginia.

“It’s clear the medical program in Virginia is not a highly competitive one, and it’s not operating as well as it should,” said Jeremy Preiss, acting head of the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority. “First, we have to assume regulatory oversight, but we’re very interested in adopting improvements that increase the number of retailers and cultivators participating.”

Medical corporations have set high prices for medical marijuana, making it inaccessible for some of the people who need it most.  “Until you have that competition, people aren’t going to get what they need at a price that actually makes sense,” said Vogl.

Roundtable participants also explored the challenges facing industrial hemp. Hemp became legal to grow in 2018, which led to a large amount of people applying for licenses and starting hemp farms. Today, many growers have not been able to stay in business due to lack of consumer demand.

One solution is incentivizing the reduction of plastics, replacing them with hemp.

“The government has promoted clean, sustainable energy by incentivizing people to buy electric cars and install solar panels. Hemp is far more sustainable than the plastics we’re using now. I can see the hemp industry taking off if we incentivize the use of hemp through tax breaks or grants,” said Chris Reese, who co-owns Bear Dance Market with Vogl.

David Rash, owner and operator of Groundworks, a garden center in Christiansburg said that a lot of the economic impact from the cannabis industry would come from industrial hemp farming, due to the rural nature of Southwest Virginia.

“There is some potential at Virginia Tech for us to do some research into the feasibility of a market for industrial hemp products. The research could look at the industrial hemp value chain to better understand linkages and how to address supply chain challenges,” said Travis.