Marijuana advocates in The Old Dominion have found an unlikely ally in Del. Harvey B. Morgan, a bespectacled 79-year-old Republican.
This year the Gloucester County lawmaker introduced a bill that would decriminalize marijuana possession and a bill that would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana.
While both measures died in the House Courts of Justice Committee, they served as another reminder of the increasing pressure to move away from the prohibition mindset that has dominated U.S. drug policy since the 1980s.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says in 2009 alone, 26 states — ranging from progressive-leaning California to conservative-leaning Alabama — considered bills dealing with medical marijuana. In November, California will vote on a measure to make all pot legal, and taxable.
The federal government currently outlaws marijuana for any use and classifies it as a Schedule One drug, meaning it has no medicinal value and is highly addictive. But in October, President Barack Obama issued a Justice Department memo that ordered federal officials to honor state laws that allow the drug.
Virginia currently allows medical marijuana to treat glaucoma and cancer.
Dee Duffy, of the Virginia chapter of NORML, a marijuana advocacy group, said, "One by one, we're seeing all the states change their laws and reform the laws."
"Even if it's just a little bit, everybody's headed in the same direction," Duffy said. "Five years ago, I would say, 'What, are you kidding me? This is going to be a long time.' I am optimistic, that some kind of change is going to happen within the next couple of years."
The legislation receives support from a broad spectrum of society, from libertarians to ex-hippies and baby boomers. And in Virginia's case, from Morgan, a retired pharmacist who says he never tried the drug.
"I grew up before marijuana became popular — it's a good thing because I probably would have tried it," he said.
He started taking an interest in decriminalization about five years ago after hearing the plights of people who had been convicted of simple possession charges and could not get a job when employers saw the drug conviction on their record.
"I've done a lot of research on it since then, and I find what an injustice it is," he said. "If you want to get a job as a taxi driver, or any other commercial driver's permit, if you want to get a job as a teacher, or if you want to get a job in any health profession, you can't do it."
Morgan's decriminalization bill would have made the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a civil offense, punishable by a $500 fine, rather than a criminal offense. The bill also would have removed the two-year mandatory sentence for distribution of more than one ounce of marijuana and the five-year mandatory sentence for the distribution of more than five pounds of marijuana.
As a senior member of the House and with his background as a pharmacist, Morgan felt he had the political and professional chops to deal with the blowback that comes with pushing the legislation. While the topic provides plenty of jokes in the statehouse, including quips about the special treats from Morgan when a plate of cookies showed up in the member's lounge, the movement is being taken seriously, said Del. David B. Albo, chairman of the Courts of Justice Committee.
Advocates of decriminalizing marijuana possession say that it has become an accepted part of American society and has similar side-effects as alcohol. They also point to the large amount of money that is spent on marijuana enforcement and holding offenders in prison.
"I'm not encouraging people to go out and smoke marijuana, but public policy needs to be based on science," said Del. David L. Englin, D-Alexandria, who co-sponsored the decriminalization bill.
But those who shot down the bill say it would have done more than just extend mercy to first-time offenders.
"They were also lowering punishments on people who were dealing pot to kids," said Albo. "They were lowering punishment on drug kingpins who sell bales of pot. The bill basically took marijuana to the same level as alcohol.… The devil is in the details on these things."
The Springfield Republican said the medical marijuana bill also was too broad because it would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for whatever they deemed appropriate, including stress.
But Albo suggested that marijuana legislation has a future.
"I would vote for a bill that would add medical marijuana to another disease if there was some kind of medical proof that it helped patients," said Albo. "I would consider looking at a bill that made first-offense possession of very small amounts of marijuana a civil penalty."
He estimated that 75 percent of the House members agree with him on modest change to the laws.
Morgan says he will continue to introduce legislation until it is passed. "It could pass this year, but I really wouldn't expect it too. But I'm gonna try anyway."
By Stephen Groves,
Virginia Statehouse News
June 23, 2010