Pubdate: Tue, 15 Jun 2010
Source: News Leader, The (VA)
Copyright: 2010 News Leader
Author: Brad Zinn


VERONA -- It's been nearly three months since the  Augusta County
Sheriff's Office made its biggest  marijuana seizure in the
department's history when it  grabbed 1,840 pounds of packaged dope
hidden inside a  truck at American Safety Razor's industrial division
headquarters in Verona.

However, the marijuana, each 23-pound bale  triple-wrapped in tinfoil,
brown shipping paper and  plastic, remains stacked inside a locked
evidence room  at the sheriff's office, the space permeated by the
pungent odor of the illegal drug. Drug dealers, buoyed  by a seemingly
never-ending demand in the United  States, would have had no problem
unloading the  marijuana. The sheriff's office, tasked with getting
rid of the shipment, is finding it a bit harder to make  the stack

In years past, the Augusta Regional Landfill was used  to dispose of
drugs, but the sheriff's office no longer  uses the landfill to
swallow its drug seizures. Even if  it did, a shipment as large as the
March bust would not  have been buried at the landfill for fear it
would  tempt too many human "gophers" into digging around,  officials

Sheriff Randy Fisher said he tried to offer the  marijuana to a
federal agency for training purposes,  but noted "they have all they

Fisher said he's now leaning toward incinerating the  entire stash,
but he declined to name where and when  that would take place. "We'll
probably burn it all at  once," he said. "The ideal time would be 2

The marijuana in question was eventually traced backed  to Mexico, but
a federal investigation into its  specific origin went cold, Fisher
said. The truck  driver, unaware the pot had been loaded onto ASR's
shipment, was cleared.

While huge marijuana seizures aren't the norm for these  parts, for
many, smoking pot is. Referencing the nearly  2,000 pounds of seized
marijuana, Fisher said, "That  amount would probably be smoked up in
30 to 60 days in  Augusta County."


Pot smokers, though, face perils. Since 2006,  statistics show more
than 1,200 misdemeanor arrests for  marijuana possession have been
made by the sheriff's  office and the Staunton and Waynesboro police

It is often argued by advocates for the  decriminalization of
marijuana that casual users of pot  are getting tossed in jail on a
routine basis, a notion  Police Chief Jim Williams of the Staunton
Police  Department doesn't support.

"We don't spend a lot of time looking for people  smoking pot," the
chief said. "We're looking for drug  dealers. That's what our drug
people spend their time  on."

Typically, a first-time offender caught with a small  amount of
marijuana is issued a summons to appear in  court, Williams said. A
person caught with an ounce or  less of marijuana faces a maximum of
30 days in jail  and a possible $500 fine.

While acknowledging that many users who smoke marijuana  don't go on
to abuse harder drugs, Williams noted it's  still considered a gateway

"It seems to me not too many people start snorting  cocaine first.
It's usually marijuana or alcohol," he  said.

Chief Doug Davis of the Waynesboro Police Department  agrees marijuana
is a gateway drug, and said he would  support neither legalizing nor
decriminalizing it.

"I don't see where the difference it," Davis said. "I  think, like
alcohol, it needs to be controlled."

Decriminalization sought

Marijuana advocate Dee Duffy, executive director for  Virginia's
National Organization for the Reform of  Marijuana Laws, is on the
front lines pushing for the  decriminalization of marijuana. Duffy
provided  statistics from that show 19,726  people
in Virginia were arrested on marijuana charges  in 2007, representing
55 percent of the state's drug  arrests.

Asked if Virginia is ready for the decriminalization of  marijuana,
she said, "I think so, more and more. There  are still some
roadblocks." One of the biggest  roadblock is the United States Drug
Enforcement  Administration, Duffy said.

"They still have it listed as a Schedule I narcotic."  The
classification puts marijuana in the same category  as heroin, LSD,
psilocybin ("magic" mushrooms) and GHB  ("date-rape" drug).

Duffy, 51, said another push by Virginia NORML is to  "un-stereotype"
marijuana. "It's the old perception of  dirty hippies sitting on the
lawn," she said.

Far from the hippie stereotype is Del. Harvey Morgan,  R-Gloucester, a
79-year-old Virginia lawmaker and  pharmacist who saw his bill to
decriminalize marijuana  die in subcommittee earlier this year. Morgan
sought to  make possession of an ounce or less or five plants or
fewer a civil offense with a $250 penalty for  first-time offenders.
Morgan, who has never used  marijuana, said too many people busted for
possession  end up being denied jobs they would otherwise be
qualified for, such as teaching or government  positions.

"It's a barrier crime," Morgan said. "It's so  inappropriate."

Morgan, who does not favor legalization, tried three  similar bills in
the past that sought the eventual  expungement of marijuana possession
charges, but those  failed as well in General Assembly. "I just think
the  punishment should fit the crime," he said.

The pharmacist also feels it's "ridiculous" that the  federal
government continues to list marijuana as a  Schedule I narcotic.
"It's no more habit-forming than  caffeine. Nobody has ever died from
an overdose," he  said.

Morgan said he again will introduce a bill to  decriminalize marijuana
in Virginia, and said the  measure could eventually succeed within
five years. "I  would hope so. It's happening all over the country,"
he  said. 
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