By Brandon Martin
As the push to legalize marijuana in Virginia gains traction among Democrats in the General Assembly, a group of advocates is organizing in opposition to the legislation.
The group ━ Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) ━ seeks “to educate citizens on the science of marijuana and to promote health-first, smart policies and attitudes that decrease marijuana use and its consequences,” according to their website.
During a Jan. 19 virtual panel discussion, the group held a about their reasons for opposing the legalization and commercialization of marijuana, Will Jones, community outreach and communications associate for SAM, said that legalization efforts are akin to a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“It’s being couched in phrases as something that would accomplish social justice goals,” Jones said. “Last year, Virginia decriminalized marijuana. That is an advancement of social justice goals by relieving penalties for personal possession.”
Jones referred to the marijuana push as an “addiction for profit industry,” adding that other states in which marijuana legislation was pushed with the intent to achieve social justice goals “have fallen short.
“It’s less than four percent ownership in the industry by people of color,” Jones said. “This system has been gamed time and time again by wealthy white entrepreneurs who are taking advantage of legalization and commercialization.
At the end of the day, we have to realize that is what this is about. We need to ask ourselves if we are ready for the consequences of an addiction for-profit industry proliferating in Virginia. Commercialization and legalization is another extreme on the spectrum of marijuana policy,” Jones said of the push for decriminalization.
While some tax benefits may come from legalization, other group members like Mary Crozier, the immediate past president of Community Coalitions of Virginia, said the funds likely would not be used appropriately.
“It doesn’t seem enough funds are going to behavioral health and substance prevention coalitions throughout the state,” Crozier said, and added it is “a false dichotomy” to funnel tax funds from marijuana into minority communities while simultaneously establishing “parity in those communities with a substance that is toxic and risky to the individuals in that community.”
Regina Whitsett, executive director of Substance Abuse Free Environment, said taxation on the businesses in the industry would also be high.
“They are talking about a 30 percent tax by the time they do the sales tax and the taxes at the locality level,” she said. “They are also talking about home grows. They are giving people permission to grow up to four plants in their home. There will be a black market because the product will be cheaper on the black market rather than them paying the taxes.”
Members of SAM also discussed the health implications.
“I’ve never seen a larger gap between the science and the public’s perception when it came to the harmful effects of marijuana,” said Dr. James Avery, Virginia co-state director of the American Academy of Medical Ethics.
Dr. Jonathan Lee, immediate past president of the Virginia Society of Addiction Medicine, said the health effects were wide.
“The American Society of Addiction Medicine warned against cannabis use in youth, adolescents, young adults, people with a history of mental illness or substance-use disorders,” Lee said. “Cannabis dependence develops in approximately 10 percent of regular cannabis users. It may be associated with cognitive impairment, poor school or work performance, and psychiatric illnesses including anxiety, depression with suicidal ideation and psychosis or paranoia.”
Moore pleaded for proponents of legalization “to do the research” before “they legalize something that is killing our children and causing harm.”
Due to the impacts on youth, Octavia Marsh, the executive director of Hanover Cares, also opposes legalization.
“We primarily focus on youth prevention,” Marsh said, and added marijuana legalization “simply does not consider or offer any protections against youth access. In the states that have legalized, both youth access and use have increased.”
Marsh said that youth would perceive “any substance that is legal as safe, and we all know that legal does not necessarily mean safe.”
Prevention strategies Marsh would like to see implemented include “an education curriculum, community and parenting education, as well as harm reduction and safeguards.”
The group also warned against more traffic accidents due to use.
“Studies show that it impairs every critical skill set associated with driving a car,” Avery said. “We don’t have the equivalent of a breathalyzer test. Seventy percent of marijuana users have admitted to driving while high and about the same percent said they know they won’t get caught.”
Noting a study of fatal car crashes in Washington pre-legalization, John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs Association, said “8.8 percent of those people were using THC. In the five–year period after legalization, the 8.8 percent jumped to 18 percent.”
After recently researching the population of all local and regional jails in the state, Jones said
“At the time, we had about 26,000 inmates serving in those local and regional jails. There were seven people incarcerated that were charged with marijuana possession only.”
Jones said only about “one-tenth of one percent” of resources are used by law enforcement to combat marijuana.
While SAM opposes the legalization of marijuana, Virginians appear to largely be in favor of it.
According to a 2017 poll conducted by Quinnipiac University, 59 percent of Virginia voters supported allowing adults to legally possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use.
The number only grew in 2019 when the University of Mary Washington conducted a similar poll that found that 61 percent of Virginia voters support the legalization of marijuana for recreational use by adults.
Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) seeks provide education on the science of marijuana and to promote health-first, smart policies and attitudes that decrease marijuana use and its consequences.