Pubdate: Sun, 09 Aug 2015
Source: Roanoke Times (VA)
Copyright: 2015 Roanoke Times
Author: Robert Sharpe


The Virginia State Police just released their 2014 Crime in Virginia 
report. Despite opinion polls showing that a majority of Virginians 
wants to see marijuana legal for personal use, Virginia continues to 
prioritize marijuana criminalization. There were 22,948 arrests for 
marijuana in 2014. Eight percent of all Virginia arrests are for 
marijuana offenses. Never mind the cost of arresting almost 23,000 
Virginians for marijuana. Think about the opportunity costs and the 
impact on public safety. Police time spent arresting non-violent 
marijuana consumers is police time not spent going after murderers, 
rapists and child molesters.

There is a myth in Virginia that minor marijuana offenders don't get 
jail time. The truth is that one in five persons arrested for simple 
marijuana possession in Virginia receives jail time. According to the 
Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, the median sentence is 15 days. 
That's more than enough time to cause someone to lose their job and the 
ability to support a family. Good luck finding a new one with an arrest 
record. The career crippling impact of marijuana criminalization applies 
to all Virginia residents busted for non-violent marijuana offenses, 
regardless as to whether or not they are jailed.

According to the latest federal drug survey, one-third of Virginia 
residents age 18-25 have used marijuana in the past year. That's a 
conservative estimate. The federal drug survey involves government 
agents questioning citizens about behaviors deemed criminal. It's not 
unreasonable to assume that people will lie about illegal drug use under 
such circumstances. Let's assume the one-third survey estimate is 
correct though. Is there any societal benefit to branding one-third of 
young adults in Virginia as criminals? It's time we stopped pretending 
that marijuana criminalization has a deterrent effect.

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

Like any drug, marijuana can be harmful if abused. Prohibition doesn't 
make marijuana safer, in fact it increases harm. Marijuana prohibition 
is a gateway drug policy. As long as marijuana is illegal and sold by 
criminals, marijuana consumers will continue to be exposed to sellers of 
methamphetamine and heroin. The plant itself is relatively harmless. 
Unlike alcohol, marijuana has never been shown to cause an overdose 
death, nor does it share the addictive properties of tobacco. Marijuana 
prohibition, however, is deadly. The gateway to hard drugs will remain 
wide open as long as marijuana remains illegal and criminals control 
marijuana distribution.

It's unfortunate that shameless culture warriors have been able to use 
the collateral damage caused by marijuana prohibition to justify 
throwing good money after bad public policy. The days when politicians 
can get away with confusing the drug war's tremendous collateral damage 
with a comparatively harmless plant are coming to an end though. The sky 
is not falling in the first state to tax and regulate legal marijuana. 
Tax revenue, tourism and college applications are all up in Colorado. 
Crime and traffic fatalities are down, possibly due to a substitution 
effect as consumers switch from more harmful alcohol to less dangerous 
marijuana. Similar benefits can be expected in Washington, Oregon and 

Legal access to marijuana is not something to be feared. Research 
published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that 
states with open medical marijuana access have a 25 percent lower opioid 
overdose death rate than marijuana prohibition states. This research 
finding has huge implications for states like Virginia that are 
grappling with prescription narcotic and heroin overdose deaths. The 
phrase "if it saves one life" has been used to justify all manner of 
drug war abuses. Legal marijuana access has the potential to save 
thousands of lives.

The criminalization of Virginians 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. It's 
outrageous that eight percent of all arrests in Virginia are for 
marijuana offenses. Our legislators needs to hear from their 
constituents on this issue. Tax dollars are being wasted and lives are 
being destroyed for the sake of policy that only benefits drug cartels. 
In Virginia and throughout the nation, it's time to stop the pointless 
arrests and instead tax legal marijuana.

Robert Sharpe Sharpe is a policy analyst with Common Sense for Drug 
Policy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming drug policy and 
expanding harm reduction. He lives in Arlington.
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