Time for marijuana reform in Virginia

Published 10:10 pm Wednesday, January 7, 2015

by Robert Sharpe

The last time a marijuana decriminalization bill was introduced in the Virginia General Assembly, the year was 2011 and the patron was Delegate Harvey Morgan (R-Gloucester), a former assistant clinical professor of pharmacy at Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical school. The bill never made it out of committee.

The General Assembly will again consider a marijuana decriminalization bill in the 2015 session, this one sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D — Alexandria).

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The fact that marijuana decriminalization in Virginia has been championed by a conservative Republican from Southern Virginia and a liberal Democrat from Northern Virginia is telling. Marijuana law reform is a bipartisan issue supported by a majority of Americans. The public opinion trend lines are clear.

Politicians who fail to embrace reform will find themselves on the wrong side of history. This will play out in the 2016 presidential elections. Voters in Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon have all passed ballot initiatives to tax and regulate marijuana. Presidential candidates will have to support states’ rights to win.

Political opportunism is not the best reason for Virginia legislators to support SB 686. Legislators should support reform because it’s the right thing to do. Marijuana prohibition is indefensible.

If the goal of marijuana prohibition is to subsidize violent drug cartels and open a gateway to the hard drugs they sell, prohibition is a grand success. The drug war distorts supply and demand dynamics so that big money grows on little trees.

If the goal is to deter use, marijuana prohibition is a catastrophic failure. The United States has almost double the lifetime rate of marijuana use as the Netherlands, where marijuana has been legally available for decades.

The criminalization of citizens who prefer marijuana to martinis has no basis in science. The war on marijuana consumers is a failed cultural inquisition, not an evidence-based public health campaign.

Virginia taxpayers pay a steep price. According to the 2013 Crime in Virginia report issued by the Virginia State Police, there were 24,776 marijuana arrests in 2013. Eight percent of all Virginia arrests in 2013 were for marijuana offenses. That’s a bizarre use of limited public safety resources at a time when the Virginia General Assembly is grappling with a budget shortfall.

Police time spent arresting marijuana consumers is police time not spent going after murderers, rapists and child molesters.

Sen. Adam Ebbin’s marijuana decriminalization bill is a long-overdue step in the right direction. If passed into law, SB 686 would free up police resources, spare non-violent marijuana consumers lifelong criminal records, and incentivize personal use cultivation.

Personal use cultivation has the potential to undermine the influence of Mexican drug cartels in Virginia. As long as drug cartels control marijuana distribution, consumers will come into contact with meth, cocaine and heroin. Marijuana prohibition is a gateway drug policy.

Virginia voters should contact their state senators and delegates and let them know they want to see SB 686 passed into law. For far too long culture warriors in the General Assembly have gotten away with confusing the drug war’s tremendous collateral damage with a comparatively harmless plant. Those days are over.

The people are way ahead of the politicians. The people nonetheless need to prod politicians on this issue. Virginia cannot afford to continue subsidizing the prejudices of culture warriors.

Robert Sharpe is a policy analyst at Common Sense for Drug Policy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming drug policy. Email him at rsharpe@csdp.org.