Cannabis legalization didn’t happen overnight — it took an army of advocates, activists and politicians to push for change as Virginia was the first, and so far the only, Southern state to fully legalize cannabis. Meet a few of the most important members of the Virginia cannabis community: People who have spoken up and taken action to make legalization a reality.
Jenn Michelle Pedini
Executive Director of Virginia NORML
As the development director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and the executive director of NORML’s Virginia chapter, Jenn Michelle Pedini was directly involved in legalizing cannabis, decriminalizing possession and establishing cannabis legislation oversight boards in Virginia.
Next, NORML’s goal is to prioritize consumer safety as recreational sales open in 2024. They endeavor to establish a fair and equitable regulatory structure within the state.
“Like so many others, I came to this work out of necessity,” Pedini says. “I’ve battled cancer twice and, presented with the reality I would likely face a third battle, I wanted to have every tool available.”They say during their treatments, many U.S. states granted legal access to cannabis — but Virginia wasn’t one of them.
“I like to say I came for the healthcare and stayed for the criminal justice.”
Learn more about Pedini and Virginia NORML’s fight for marijuana rights at vanorml.org. Follow Virginia NORML on Instagram @virginia.norml.
Chelsea Higgs Wise
Founder of Marijuana Justice
Chelsea Higgs Wise is as passionate as they come when it comes to marijuana justice and reform. As founder of the nonprofit Marijuana Justice, her top priority is a fair and just system, particularly for minorities who have suffered the most from the war on drugs.
Wise, who is also a clinical social worker, wants to think bigger when it comes to social equity in cannabis legislation. Within the context of cannabis law, social equity describes the process of implementing criminal justice reforms, promoting diversity in the industry, and reinvesting in communities that have been disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition.
To Wise, social equity is more like a buzz term that has been framed as a business portion of the legislation. She says it should be more focused on people.
“What’s most important to me is defunding the Virginia drug war, providing freedom to incarcerated people and providing expungements and direct payments to those impacted.”
In 2013, Tamara Netzel was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She took medication until, four years later, her prescription caused liver failure. Then, she discovered CBD oil.
Netzel is the first to admit that before she tried CBD, she wasn’t educated on cannabis. But once she realized this remedy relieved her chronic pain like nothing else, she sprang into action.
Netzel challenges misconceived notions on cannabis with her nonprofit portrait exhibit, “Cruel Consequences: Portraits of Misguided Law,” which tells stories of those who have suffered under cannabis prohibition. She hopes more Virginians will open their minds toward cannabis consumption, and one day, cannabis will be treated like any other medicine.
“When you have been through a lot to fight an illness, you feel betrayed by the rest of the world already,” Netzel says. “Then you encounter barriers to access safe medicine that helps you. I’ve been there and don’t want anyone to feel they are shut out from something that can help them.”
Ngiste Abebe began consuming cannabis to treat her insomnia and felt uncomfortable she could purchase it while people were still incarcerated for possession. In response, she joined the Virginia chapter of NORML.
Her NORML board membership led her to her position as vice president of public policy at Columbia Care, one of the largest cultivators, manufacturers and providers of medical and adult-use cannabis products in the United States. Although Abebe’s focus shifted to the national level, she is still serving at the state level as board member of Virginia’s Cannabis Public Health Advisory Board (CPHAB), which was established in July.
Through this position, Abebe hopes her perspective will help dispel misconceptions about cannabis and establish regulations to protect both patients and consumers.
“I strive to be a connector who makes complex policy actionable,” she says. “People need to inform policy with their expertise and perspectives, and I hope to keep pulling more seats to the table so we can see cannabis make a difference.”
Learn more about Abebe at vanorml.org/board.
State Senator of Virginia’s 30th District
In May 2020, after years of dedication and hard work, Senator Adam Ebbin passed SB2, which decriminalized simple marijuana possession in Virginia.
“The prohibition on cannabis at the state and federal level has clearly failed, and those failures have generational effects,” Ebbin says. “[Effects which impact] access to safe medical cannabis, over-policing of Black and brown communities and the stigmatization of a comparatively safe alternative to addictive, dangerous intoxicants.”
Senator Ebbin says consumer safety and public health are key components to cannabis policy.
“Just like anything else you put in your body, people need to know what they’re getting — whether that be appropriate dosage or actual product safety,” he says.
Delegate of Virginia’s 68th District
Delegate Dawn Adams, who has a background as a medical practitioner, says her experience in the medical field is invaluable in the context of legislative policy.
“It gives me a unique perspective on patient needs,” Adams says.
While she advocates for general adult use of cannabis, she wants to build a robust medical cannabis program to ensure it meets the needs of all patients.
“Marijuana law reform [helps] patients who are unable to be appropriately helped by pharmaceuticals,” she says. “Cannabis prohibition is a failed government policy resulting in discriminatory law enforcement toward people of color — a waste of taxpayer dollars. It [has] criminalized a substance no more harmful than alcohol.”
Founder + Chief Executive Officer of Dharma Pharmaceuticals
Dharma Pharmaceuticals, a locally owned medicinal cannabis cultivator and dispensary, was the first processor in Virginia to open to the public in October 2020. Together with his husband and a longtime business associate, CEO Jack Page established Dharma to help patients cope with ailments with safe and accessible medicinal cannabis products.
This summer, Dharma was acquired by Green Thumb Industries and opened their second dispensary, RISE Salem, in Salem, Virginia. Page hopes with this expansion, Dharma can educate more people about the medicinal properties of cannabis and connect with those who may benefit.
“We believe that access to quality, regulated cannabis products is a right to wellness,” he says. “Many of our patients rely on high-quality products in order to manage pain, anxiety or to help with a good night’s sleep, and we are seeing more people turn to cannabis as an alternative to pain medicines and sleep aids.”
Learn more about Dharma Pharmaceuticals at dharmacann.com.
Founder of Virginia Hemp Coalition
In 2012, long time cannabis and hemp industry advocate Jason Amatucci established Virginia Hemp Coalition (VHC) to educate, inspire and rally Virginians to restore the free market for industrial hemp.
Amatucci has influenced several important pieces of legislation regarding hemp and cannabis rights, including the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills, as well as Virginia’s 2015 Industrial Hemp Law. Now hemp production is legal at both the federal level and the state level in Virginia, Amatucci is focused on ensuring a free market for local hemp farmers and pushing for FDA regulation.
“Our goal from day one was to have hemp be treated as any other crop,” Amatucci says. “I think one day we’ll get there, but we have to keep educating people.”
Account Manager at VCNaturalz
Before he worked at the minority-owned hemp company VCNaturalz, Dan Porterfield ran two vape shops — until he discovered CBD products were more effective than pain pills for his back injury.
It was then that he joined the VCNaturalz initiative, which aims to provide high-quality hemp cannabinoid products and offer the healthiest CBD treatments on the market. Porterfield says he enjoys working in cannabis more than the vape industry because he feels like he’s helping people heal.
He hopes for more regulation of cannabis and CBD products so consumers can stay safe and know what they’re putting into their bodies.
“Right now, there isn’t a regulation that requires lab reports — it’s more due diligence on the CBD company itself,” he says. “That’s something we already do. Every product has a lab test and is completely visible to our customers.”
President of Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM) Virginia Chapter
After serving 10 years in the military, Antione Hines left with severe internal injuries, as did many of his fellow compatriots. The veteran says marijuana was the only relief for his pain — so he dedicated himself to fighting for the right to access medical marijuana.
Hines is currently the president of the Virginia chapter of Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM), a nonprofit organization committed to cultivating an inclusive and diverse environment, while also serving as a resource for those who are interested in the world of cannabis.
As chapter president, Hines is focused on changing policies that put Black and brown people in jail; fighting for the expungement of records for those incarcerated due to marijuana-related offenses; and seeking to include social equity provisions to aid minorities who have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.
When recreational sales open in Virginia, he hopes marginalized folks can get in on the cannabis market.
“I hope to see Black and brown people owning and running dispensaries,” he says. “I hope to see hundreds of records expunged so people can partake in economic wealth opportunities. And I hope to see our historically Black colleges and universities given the opportunity to take part in research and education to close the wealth gap.”
Learn more about Minorities for Medical Marijuana at minorities4medicalmarijuana.org
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