Before a packed room in the General Assembly Building, Delegate Harvey Morgan, R-Gloucester, on Wednesday called for laws allowing the medical use of marijuana and reducing the penalties for possession of the drug.
Morgan, 79, chairman of the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee, said the bills he is sponsoring represent a "compassionate and sensible drug policy."
"I have received more media inquiries about these bills than any measure, I believe, that I have ever patroned," Morgan said. "To me, this serves as an indication that support for a sensible approach to policies regarding the medicinal use of marijuana is widespread."
Under existing law, Virginians suffering from cancer or glaucoma can use medical marijuana. However, the drug is not legally available in plant form. Patients must obtain a prescription for Marinol, a pill that contains a synthetic form of delta-9-tetrahydrcannabinol, or THC - a chemical found in marijuana.
Morgan, a pharmacist, is sponsoring House Bill 1136, which would let medical professionals prescribe marijuana to treat other conditions, such as AIDS, Parkinson's disease and chronic pain.
"It respects the judgment of medical professionals and their patients to determine the best and most effective course of treatment," Morgan said.
Aron Lichtman, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Marinol is not very effective: "There is a very slow onset; it's difficult to titrate the correct dose. So inhalation of [marijuana] makes a lot of sense."
M. Imad Damaj, also a professor of pharmacology at VCU, said Morgan "is well aware that every drug has this balance between benefit and harm."
"This bill does not give the regular person the authority to decide what drug they have to have for their disease, it's left in the hand of the physician," Damaj said. "Some people will really benefit from this."
Lennice Werth, director of Virginians Against Drug Violence, said THC isn't the only chemical in marijuana that has beneficial medicinal uses.
"There are other substances there that actually mitigate and add to the medical benefits," Werth said.
Morgan, who has served in the General Assembly for three decades, said he understands that "medications have benefits and risks" and that marijuana isn't the answer for everyone.
"This bill simply allows for one, and only one, additional treatment option for patients - one administered under a physician's close supervision," he said.
Morgan also is sponsoring HB 1134, which would decriminalize possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana. The bill would create a civil penalty of $500 for possession of such an amount. ( Currently, possession of an ounce of marijuana is a criminal offense, punishable by a fine of at least $500, jail time and a permanent criminal record. )
HB 1134 would also remove the mandatory two-year sentence for distribution of less than 1 ounce of marijuana and the mandatory five-year sentence for the distribution of more than 1 ounce.
"We need to move to a more honest, reasoned, compassionate and sensible drug policy, and this bill does that," Morgan said.
Mary Lynn Mathre of the Jefferson Clinical Cannabis Coalition said people's lives have been ruined because they have a criminal record for possessing a small amount of marijuana.
"It is absolutely tragic," Mathre said, "and I think Delegate Morgan is a courageous man for getting this bills introduced. I think that the support that he is hearing is an indication that the public understands how overdue these bits of legislation are."
Morgan said Virginia could save as much as $225 million a year in law enforcement and court costs by changing marijuana possession from a criminal to a civil offense.
He said he would be "pleasantly surprised" if his bills passed. He acknowledged that some legislators might oppose the proposals because of their constituents' views about marijuana.
"I think that governs some people ... I really don't care," Morgan said. "I've been here a long time; if my constituents want me to retire, so can it be. I'm not saying I want to - I didn't say that at all - but I think what I am doing is the right thing."
Since 1980, Morgan has represented House District 98, which includes the counties of Essex, Gloucester, Mathews and Middlesex and parts of King and Queen and King William counties.
HB 1134 and 1136 have been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee.
If Morgan's legislation passes, Virginia would join about 20 other states that have decriminalized marijuana. Morgan made it clear that he is not legalizing marijuana, but that he feels Virginia's laws need to change.
"I think it's only a matter of time," he said.
By Jay Scarborough and Kelsey Radcliffe
January 22, 2010