The Marijuana Debate

Jan 12, 2014

A recent Gallup poll shows 58% of Americans favor legalizing marijuana.  Colorado and Washington  have done so, and Californians are expected to vote on the question this year.  So might the Commonwealth follow their lead? 

Virginia was once a major producer of tobacco, but today less than five percent of the world’s crop is grown in the U.S.   The state’s climate is favorable for growing marijuana, there’s plenty of water, and many rural areas might welcome an economic boost, but the political climate is something else.

“What Colorado did with the legalization of marijuana added new meaning to the Mile High City there in Denver," says  Senator Emmett Hangar, who’s been in the Virginia legislature for more than 30 years.  He’s not about to legalize pot.  Nor is his Republican ally Steve Landes, who chairs the House education committee.  “Although marijuana, in and of itself,  is not as serious in my estimation as cocaine or methamphetamine in some cases it leads to those types of drug addiction if the person is  susceptible to substance abuse.”

And Republican Delegate Rob Bell says Virginia already goes easy on people arrested for possession of pot.  In 2011, there were more than 22-thousand arrests in the Commonwealth related to marijuana – 90% involving possession, but on a first offense, Bell says nobody goes to jail.  “They put you on probation for a year.  If you don’t have some subsequent offense, you don’t even have a criminal record.”

That’s true – but only if the offender agrees to go through a treatment program or submit to other terms required by a judge.   If not, the law says he or she can be jailed for 30 days and subject to a $500 fine for a first-time offense.

When Gallup surveyed more than a thousand Americans and found nearly six in ten favored legalizing marijuana, the organization noted much lower support – just 35% -- among Republicans.  Sixty-five percent of Democrats thought it a good idea.  But here in Virginia, Democrat and house minority leader David Toscano isn’t rushing into anything.  Instead, he’ll keep an eye on what happens out west.
 “And based on that, I think we might be able to make some judgments that are different from the ones we’ve made right now.”

Toscano said he’d be open to a broad exception for medical marijuana. Ironically, this was the first state to legalize the drug for certain medical purposes – cancer and glaucoma -- in 1979,  17 years before California’s medical marijuana law was signed. 

While it is legal for Virginia pharmacies to fill prescriptions for marijuana to treat glaucoma and the side effects of cancer, Virginia pharmacists say they have no way to get the drug.  Ophthalmologists say there are better ways to treat glaucoma, and their academy finds no compelling evidence that marijuana is effective in controlling the disease.