Why You Should Support Marijuana Decriminalization in Virginia

[This article was cross-posted from AltDaily.com. Big Thanks to Jesse Scaccia for giving us the chance to stand on their soapbox!]


The Commonwealth of Virginia’s legislative body, the General Assembly, will be meeting this coming January for its 2015 lawmaking session. State Senator Adam Ebbin, a democrat from Alexandria, has introduced SB 686, a bill that would decriminalize possession of marijuana. We are writing today to persuade you, dear reader, to show your support for this bill by signing our Change.org petition in favor of SB 686,  targeted at the state representatives who will be deciding the fate of this bill, namely Senators Thomas K Norment, Jr., Mark Obenshain and the other members of the Senate Courts of Justice committee.

Unbeknownst to most people, Virginia actually has a medical marijuana law on the books. The statute, Code of Virginia § 18.2-251.1, makes provisions for the use of marijuana for medicinal reasons, specifically, by prescription for the treatment of cancer of glaucoma. The catch, and the reason that the law remains unknown, is that the ability of physicians to prescribe the drug is prohibited by the Federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, which by definition has no medicinal use. By comparison, states that have passed medical marijuana laws in recent years have used the word ‘recommend’ instead of ‘prescribe’ in their statues.

This classification did not dissuade Gloucester Delegate Harvey B. Morgan from proposing changes in 2010 that would have removed the stipulations on cancer and glaucoma diagnoses, and would have opened the door for medicinal cannabis use should it be rescheduled. A 2012 bill by Alexandria’s Delegate David Englin aimed to do just that; HJ 139 requested the Governor petition the DEA to reschedule marijuana to Schedule II. In 2010 and 2011, Delegate Morgan also introduced decriminalization measures. In all four cases, bills were passed by, or tabled, in subcommittee, and never made it to the House of Delegate floor to be voted on by the members at large.

While many are advocating full legalization, the bill before the Senate this coming year is only focused on decriminalization, so it is important to know exactly what the proposed legislation will do. Senate Bill 686 decriminalizes possession, changing the fine from $500 criminal fine to a$100 civil one that will be paid to the State’s Literary Fund, and eliminates the 30-day jail sentence. It reduces penalties for distribution, notably the 5 year minimum sentence for 5 pounds or more. It “creates the assumption” that someone growing six plants or less does so for personal reasons. If passed, substance abuse programs and suspended sentences will only apply to people convicted of criminal violations or civil ones by a minor. It changes the laws regarding paraphernalia, and also creates limits on civil forfeiture to distribution of a pound or more. Lastly, the bill decreases the penalties for possession by a prisoner; it is still a felony.

Sen Ebbin’s bill mirrors the language of Delegate Morgan’s failed 2010 and 2011 bills and also faces an uphill battle in Virginia, which has traditionally been very conservative when it comes to any type of legislative change. Why then, should we expect such a legislative measure to succeed when past measures have been met with such unequivocal defeat? First, national momentum in drug policy changes have been sweeping the nation for the past several years, with Colorado and Washington states passing full legalization measures, and now Washington DC voters have passed Initiative 71 to effectively decriminalize marijuana. Almost half of the states have legalized marijuana in some form or another, and there is even a bill in Congress that would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend medicinal cannabis to their patients. Public opinion has been shifting against marijuana prohibition as well, as Virginia voters overwhelmingly approve medical marijuana 6-1, according to recent polls.

Secondly, the recent success in Colorado has given pause to skeptics, noting that rather than turning Colorado into a lawless hellscape as critics has warned, revenue from legalized marijuana was more than twice what was originally anticipated, for a total of $37.1 million from recreational pot as of November. This money is being distributed to schools and infrastructure projects, as well as substances abuse education and prevention programs, which are 7 times more effective at curbing drug use than law enforcement measures. While the United States continues to spend between $10 and 20 billion dollars annually on enforcement, law enforcement organizations and officials are preparing for change, with the DEA requesting that the FDA reconsider marijuana’s Schedule I status, and Albemarle County Chief of Police Steve Sellers working with his Colorado counterparts to prepare for a possible change in Virginia. And just this week, the editorial board of the Virginian Pilot newspaper came out in support of SB 686.

Third, while some groups continue to fight against policy changes in the name of protecting our children, it is apparent that the current criminal prohibition of marijuana is doing more harm than it aims to prevent. Parallels to early 20th century alcohol prohibition are prevalent, which did little to stop consumption while driving sales to the black market, where it profited organized criminal organizations. And while alcohol continues to enjoy most-favored-drug status in the United States, it continues to cause more long-term health problems and accidental deaths than have been seen among marijuana consumers. It seems ridiculous that I can enjoy a glass of wine while writing this article when a small amount of marijuana can saddle one with a fine, jail time, or in some cases, the loss of an automobile or even a house. Today, a marijuana conviction can even cause college students to lose access to Federal student aid. In 2012, over 20 thousand people were arrested for possession of marijuana. Estimates for prohibition enforcement in Virginia range from $67 to 125 million a year. By contrast, the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control made $134 million in profit off of $758 million in sales in 2013. Is this not remarkable?

At this point, the full legalization of marijuana for commercial use in the Commonwealth of Virginia is not on the table. Senator Ebbin’s bill only deals with decriminalization, a measure that will clear up a majority of the law enforcement and taxpayer resources that are wasted each year, and should help reduce the biased enforcement of the law that the ACLU and NAACP are fighting against. SB 686 is a good first step for Virginia toward a rational drug policy that will alleviate the most problematic aspects of our current system, while allowing us to discuss and craft sensible policy for the future.

It is for these reasons that we at the Virginia Marijuana Legalization Project have created our petition in support of SB 686. We realize that these first steps are important, and do not want to see Virginia continue to lag behind the rest of the nation with regards to this policy. The bill offers solutions for both the culturally liberal, fiscally conservative, and libertarian minded citizen. We acknowledge that previous decriminalization efforts in the House of Delegates have been passed over by the Courts of Justice committee in the past, so our petition is directed squarely at its Senate members, with the sole purpose of convincing them to refer it to the Senate at large where it can be voted on by the full membership. Ideally, the measure would be passed by the Senate and would then face passage in the House of Delegates, and if successful there would go to Governor McAuliffe’s desk to be signed into law. Our goal is to collect 2500 supporters on our petition, and deliver this list to the Senate committee when they meet this January. Should the measure successfully escape its predecessor’s fate, we will retarget our efforts to the greater Senate and Delegate members as appropriate.

If you would like to help, please do so by signing our petition and sharing it with other Virginia citizens that you know. Contact your State Senator or Delegate, especially if that are a member of the Courts of Justice committee, and voice your support and let them know you are a constituent!

Visit our site at VMLP.org and sign up for our mailing list, and find, follow, like and share us on Facebook and Twitter as well. You should also support NORML (National Organization for the Repeal of Marijuana Laws) and its many Virginia chapters, and also consider writing to your local media or speaking before your local city or county board or council in support of SB 686. Above all, SPREAD THE WORD, and help move Virginia forward toward a rational marijuana policy in 2015.


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