By: David Mattera, Legislative Associate
Virginia is confused. It has a law allowing physicians to prescribe marijuana for the treatment of glaucoma and cancer, but no means for patients to legally obtain the drug.
This is both sad and absurd, as is Virginia’s marijuana possession law. Simple possession of marijuana -- without intent to sell or distribute -- is a criminal offense punishable with possible jail time and a permanent scar on your record. Get caught with a small amount for your own use, and you can be barred from teaching, working jobs with fiduciary responsibilities, driving a taxi, or even working in a nail salon for life.
Delegate Harvey Morgan, a pharmacist from Gloucester, introduced two marijuana reform bills in the Virginia General Assembly this year: HB 1134 and HB1136. Unfortunately, both bills got killed last night, despite two hours of testimony in support and literally none in total opposition.
HB 1136 would have permitted doctors to prescribe marijuana to treat any illness, not just glaucoma and cancer. This wasn’t the final fix, but it would have put the right policy in place --allowing doctors, not legislators, to make medical decisions--should medical marijuana ever become legally obtainable Virginia.
HB 1134 would have removed the criminal charge for simple possession of marijuana and substituted a maximum civil fine of $500. The effects of this bill, had it passed, would have been immediate and far-reaching.
Virginia spends an estimated $200 million annually to arrest and prosecute marijuana charges. Overall, marijuana accounts for about 5% of all arrests in the state. HB 1134 would have saved taxpayers’ millions of dollars, put money in the coffers of the Literary Fund, and helped unclog a court system overflowing with unnecessary prosecutions.
Our society pays dearly for alcohol and smoking. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 450,000 individuals die each year from tobacco use, and about 80,000 die from alcohol abuse. The cost associated with these deaths is incalculable. There have been no marijuana-induced deaths or illnesses recorded.
HB 1134 would have injected a modicum of fairness and reason into our marijuana law. Studies show that the vast majority of people who use marijuana are law abiding citizens who pay taxes, work, have families, do well in school and vote. Criminalizing these people for a personal choice that has almost no deleterious effects on them or on society as a whole just doesn’t make sense.
And, it misses the whole point of criminal laws.
A fundamental lesson that legislators seem to have forgotten is that the criminalization of any activity curtails individual freedom. Of course, we must have criminal laws, but it is imperative that we carefully weigh in the societal balance the need for and consequences of criminalizing any act.
Any behavior that is criminalized should meet this three pronged test: First, it must pose a threat to society that, if left unchecked, will undermine widely shared values that lie at the core of the democratic tradition. Second, there must be a good probability that the activity will harm innocent parties. Third, the criminal sanction required to stop the activity should not create more harm than the act itself.
The continued criminalization of marijuana possession in Virginia fails to satisfy all three prongs of this test. Virginia’s pot law’s pot needs to be stirred but our legislators still don’t smell anything burning. It won’t happen in the 2010 General Assembly, but there’s always next year.
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