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What’s Next: High Time for Marijuana Reform

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

There is one thing I have found that my libertarian Republican and social justice Democrat friends can mostly agree on — it is high time Virginia passes marijuana reform.

It is my opinion that: 1) marijuana should be governed similarly to alcohol, legal at age 21; 2) doctors at hospitals or assisted living facilities should be able to administer prescriptions to anyone; and 3) we should create an automatic expungement process for people previously convicted over 21 and have a clear path to expungement for those under 21 for both marijuana and alcohol.

Right now the legislature is favoring bills HB 972 by Del. Charnell Herring (D), and SB 2 by Arlington state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D), both supported by Governor Northam (I will refer to these as “the favored bills”). In the favored bills, jail time is eliminated, a reduced civil fine of $50 is implemented, the possession amount to be charged would increase from half an ounce to one ounce, and an expungement path would be created.

These are good first steps, but we can and should do more.

Decriminalization vs. Legalization

The favored bills would decriminalize, not legalize, marijuana possession for adults. While a step in the right direction, I believe this is a missed opportunity.

Perpetuating an underground marketplace for sale is bad policy for two reasons. First, the government cannot impose a sales tax on something that should be a known transaction. In Colorado after just 5 years of legalization, the state has collected over $1 billion in tax revenue. Second, selling on the black market provides opportunity for marijuana to be mixed with harmful substances and makes it difficult for consumers to understand the breakdown of THC vs. CBD in their product, to the detriment of public health.

HB 1507 introduced by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D) and supporters by Arlington’s Del. Patrick Hope (D), would support legalization.

Medical Marijuana

There are currently only five facilities, one in each region of Virginia, that can administer medical marijuana. HB 347 by Del. Glen Davis (R) would allow for two facilities in each region, and SB 185 by state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R) would allow nursing homes and assisted living facilities to administer cannabidiol and THC-A oil.

Again, while these are steps in the right direction, this will not do enough to fight the opioid epidemic. I am surprised by a lack of movement here by Democrats.

Expungement

The favored bills would allow a person to petition for expungement after fines have been paid. If we are just going to decriminalize, this seems inherently discriminatory to those who cannot afford a lawyer and an unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle that should just be an automatic process. This automatic expungement for marijuana offenses and underage alcohol possession would be tackled in SB 289 by Sen. Creigh Deeds (D), and SB 306 by Sen. William Stanley (R).

Smoking While Driving

A new provision of HB 972 would be creating a jail sentence of up to 30 days for smoking and driving. A basic ground rule, that I don’t want to underplay, is that smoking and driving is absolutely unacceptable.

I do fear the unintended consequences of this provision until there is a smoking equivalent of a breathalyzer. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has determined One Leg Stand tests have only 65% accuracy, Walk and Turn tests 68%, and a slightly better read with the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test at 77% accuracy.

Unfortunately this seems like another pathway to discriminatory incarceration. Even in progressive Arlington, blacks are 26% more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. That number would be lower if looking at only Arlington residents, but it is still extremely high for residents as a proportion of the general population.

Conclusion

After this session it looks like Virginia will have taken a giant step in the right direction on marijuana policy. While we are headed in the right direction, there is still more to do and I hope our delegation will be supportive of those steps next year.

From now on, for Google alerts purposes, I will note all elected officials in Arlington that would have a vote in the matters I am writing about. ATTN: Sen. Adam Ebbin, Sen. Barbara Favola, Sen. Janet Howell, Del. Patrick Hope, Del. Mark Levine, Del. Alfonso Lopez, and Del. Rip Sullivan.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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