VERONA — It's been nearly three months since the Augusta County Sheriff's Office made its biggest marijuana seizure in the department's history when it grabbed 1,840 pounds of packaged dope hidden inside a truck at American Safety Razor's industrial division headquarters in Verona.
However, the marijuana, each 23-pound bale triple-wrapped in tinfoil, brown shipping paper and plastic, remains stacked inside a locked evidence room at the sheriff's office, the space permeated by the pungent odor of the illegal drug.
Drug dealers, buoyed by a seemingly never-ending demand in the United States, would have had no problem unloading the marijuana. The sheriff's office, tasked with getting rid of the shipment, is finding it a bit harder to make the stack disappear.
In years past, the Augusta Regional Landfill was used to dispose of drugs, but the sheriff's office no longer uses the landfill to swallow its drug seizures.
Even if it did, a shipment as large as the March bust would not have been buried at the landfill for fear it would tempt too many human "gophers" into digging around, officials said.
Sheriff Randy Fisher said he tried to offer the marijuana to a federal agency for training purposes, but noted "they have all they need."
Fisher said he's now leaning toward incinerating the entire stash, but he declined to name where and when that would take place. We'll probably burn it all at once, he said. The ideal time would be 2 a.m.
The marijuana in question was eventually traced backed to Mexico, but a federal investigation into its specific origin went cold, Fisher said. The truck driver, unaware the pot had been loaded onto ASR's shipment, was cleared.
While huge marijuana seizures aren't the norm for these parts, for many, smoking pot is. Referencing the nearly 2,000 pounds of seized marijuana, Fisher said, That amount would probably be smoked up in 30 to 60 days in Augusta County.
Pot smokers, though, face perils. Since 2006, statistics show more than 1,200 misdemeanor arrests for marijuana possession have been made by the sheriff's office and the Staunton and Waynesboro police departments.
It is often argued by advocates for the decriminalization of marijuana that casual users of pot are getting tossed in jail on a routine basis, a notion Police Chief Jim Williams of the Staunton Police Department doesn't support.
We don't spend a lot of time looking for people smoking pot, the chief said. We're looking for drug dealers. That's what our drug people spend their time on.
Typically, a first-time offender caught with a small amount of marijuana is issued a summons to appear in court, Williams said. A person caught with an ounce or less of marijuana faces a maximum of 30 days in jail and a possible $500 fine.
While acknowledging that many users who smoke marijuana don't go on to abuse harder drugs, Williams noted it's still considered a gateway drug.
It seems to me not too many people start snorting cocaine first. It's usually marijuana or alcohol, he said.
Chief Doug Davis of the Waynesboro Police Department agrees marijuana is a gateway drug, and said he would support neither legalizing nor decriminalizing it.
I don't see where the difference it, Davis said. I think, like alcohol, it needs to be controlled.
Marijuana advocate Dee Duffy, executive director for Virginia's National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, is on the front lines pushing for the decriminalization of marijuana.
Duffy provided statistics from www.drugscience.org that show 19,726 people in Virginia were arrested on marijuana charges in 2007, representing 55 percent of the state's drug arrests.
Asked if Virginia is ready for the decriminalization of marijuana, she said, I think so, more and more. There are still some roadblocks. One of the biggest roadblock is the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, Duffy said.
They still have it listed as a Schedule I narcotic. The classification puts marijuana in the same category as heroin, LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and GHB ("date-rape" drug).
Duffy, 51, said another push by Virginia NORML is to un-stereotype marijuana. It's the old perception of dirty hippies sitting on the lawn, she said.
Far from the hippie stereotype is Del. Harvey Morgan, R-Gloucester, a 79-year-old Virginia lawmaker and pharmacist who saw his bill to decriminalize marijuana die in subcommittee earlier this year.
Morgan sought to make possession of an ounce or less or five plants or fewer a civil offense with a $250 penalty for first-time offenders. Morgan, who has never used marijuana, said too many people busted for possession end up being denied jobs they would otherwise be qualified for, such as teaching or government positions.
It's a barrier crime, Morgan said. it's so inappropriate.
Morgan, who does not favor legalization, tried three similar bills in the past that sought the eventual expungement of marijuana possession charges, but those failed as well in General Assembly. I just think the punishment should fit the crime, he said.
The pharmacist also feels it's ridiculous that the federal government continues to list marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic. It's no more habit-forming than caffeine. Nobody has ever died from an overdose, he said.
Morgan said he again will introduce a bill to decriminalize marijuana in Virginia, and said the measure could eventually succeed within five years. I would hope so. It's happening all over the country, he said.
JUNE 15, 2010
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