Pubdate: Sun, 11 Jan 2015
Source: Roanoke Times (VA)
Copyright: 2015 Roanoke Times
Author: Robert Sharpe


The last time a marijuana decriminalization bill was introduced in the 
Virginia General Assembly session the year was 2011 and the patron was 
Del. 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 Virginia General Assembly will 
again consider a marijuana decriminalization bill in the 2015 session, 
this one sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria.

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.

At a time when state budget reductions are on the horizon again, 
Virginia continues to waste public resources enforcing outdated 
marijuana laws passed in ignorance. Original drug czar Harry Anslinger 
was able to ensure passage of the federal Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 by 
making outrageous claims such as "reefer makes darkies think they're as 
good as white men" and "marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in 
the history of mankind." This type of reefer madness is the reason 
marijuana is illegal. 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.

When marijuana was first made illegal, few Americans had heard the word 
marijuana, much less smoked it. In the early 1900's marijuana use was 
largely limited to Mexican migrant laborers and black jazz musicians in 
New Orleans. White Americans did not begin to use marijuana in 
significant numbers until after our federal government began funding 
reefer madness propaganda. If anything, marijuana prohibition has 
increased use by creating forbidden fruit appeal. This played out big 
time in the rebellious 1960s when marijuana use among white American 
baby boomers rose dramatically.

Virginia taxpayers pay a steep price for marijuana prohibition. 
Marijuana arrests are up in Virginia for the fourth year in a row. 
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.

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 need to contact their state senator and delegate and let 
them know they want to see SB 686 passed into law. For far too long 
culture warriors in the Virginia 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.

Sharpe is a policy analyst with Common Sense for Drug Policy, a 
nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming drug policy.
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