Pubdate: Thu, 10 Feb 2011
Source: Roanoke Times (VA)
Copyright: 2011 Roanoke Times
Author: Robert Sharpe
Note: Sharpe is a board member of the Virginia chapter of the 
National Organization for the Reform Marijuana Laws


Del. William Cleaveland, R-Botetourt County, sponsored one of a slew 
of bipartisan bills in the 2011 Virginia General Assembly to outlaw 
the sale and use of synthetic marijuana. His was one incorporated 
into H.B. 1434, which passed the House without a dissenting vote. The 
Senate passed a similar bill, also without a "no" vote.

In a year when the entire General Assembly is up for re-election, 
banning synthetic marijuana is one thing risk-averse legislators can agree on.

Synthetic marijuana is made from chemicals related to mothballs. The 
effects may be similar, but the chemicals are nothing like marijuana. 
The synthetics contain carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons 
in amounts large enough to make tobacco look like health food in 
comparison. The comparative safety of organic marijuana is well-established.

The synthetic bills all contain one major flaw. They criminalize 
personal use. Zero tolerance has done little other than burden 
otherwise law-abiding citizens with criminal records. Consider the 
U.S. experience with natural marijuana. Despite more than 850,000 
arrests annually, the U.S. has double the rate of marijuana use as 
the Netherlands, where marijuana is legally available.

Among the primary users of synthetic marijuana are military 
personnel. This is because synthetic marijuana does not show up in 
drug tests. Virginia legislators are about to pass a drug law that 
will disproportionately impact men and women in uniform, some of whom 
may be self-medicating. Marijuana is widely used by veterans to 
self-treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

The way marijuana treats PTSD is really quite simple. It helps people 
forget. This is a godsend to soldiers and veterans haunted by 
memories of war. Israel has a well-established medical marijuana 
program. PTSD is a common, doctor-approved justification for medical 
use among Israeli Defense Forces veterans.

Cleaveland wants to make possession of synthetic marijuana a Class 1 
misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in jail. Can Virginia even 
afford to put more nonviolent offenders behind bars? Is this really a 
top priority during an economic downturn that has resulted in layoffs 
of police, firefighters and teachers?

The drug war has given the land of the free the highest incarceration 
rate in the world, with absolutely nothing to show for it. For the 
same reasons alcohol prohibition failed, the drug war has been doomed 
from the start. We're shortchanging our children's future by 
prioritizing incarceration over education.

This is, of course, an election year. The root cause of the punitive 
nanny state is political opportunism. Drug prohibition finances 
organized crime at home and terrorism abroad, which is then used by 
shameless politicians to justify throwing good money after bad policy.

Banning the over-the-counter sale of synthetic marijuana is easily 
done. The feds have largely accomplished this already. Criminalizing 
users unnecessarily entails expanding big government. Thanks to 
education efforts, legal tobacco use has steadily declined, without 
any need to criminalize tobacco smokers.

More drug war is not the answer. A better solution is to ease up on 
penalties for natural marijuana. The use of synthetic marijuana is an 
unintended side-effect of the war on real marijuana. Consumers are 
turning to potentially toxic drugs, made in China and sold as 
research chemicals before being repackaged as incense for sale in the U.S.

Virginia is about to embark on an endless cat-and-mouse game. Banning 
the over-counter-sale of synthetics is one thing, but policing the 
Internet is another entirely. Chinese chemists will tweak formulas to 
stay one step ahead of the law and two steps ahead of the drug tests. 
New versions won't necessarily be safer.

It's long past time to stop pretending marijuana is more dangerous 
than legal alcohol, tobacco or prescription narcotics. Marijuana is 
not nearly as harmful (or exciting) as Virginia's criminal penalties 
suggest. Virginia legislators will be making changes to the state's 
Drug Control Act. Those changes should include marijuana decriminalization.  
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