WINCHESTER — Advocates of liberalizing Virginia’s strict marijuana laws hope progress will come during the General Assembly session, which began Wednesday in Richmond.
“We are living in the Dark Ages in how we address marijuana in Virginia,” said state Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville, who plans to reintroduce a bill increasing medical marijuana use and is supportive of reducing criminal penalties for recreational use. “We’ve had Prohibition and we’ve been down this road before. What you create is a black market and it’s been really detrimental in a lot of ways.”
Vogel said Tuesday that she plans to reintroduce a bill expanding use of a marijuana oil that doesn’t get people high, but can help reduce pain from diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), cancer, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. The bill passed last year in the state Senate, but died in the House of Delegates.
The Drug Enforcement Administration in 1970 classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug in the same category as cocaine and heroin. It says it has no medical value and a high potential for abuse.
Critics of the DEA classification say it is outdated. They point to medical studies showing marijuana, which produces mild euphoria in users, has medical benefits and is far less addictive or dangerous than alcohol or tobacco.
A 1999 report by the National Academy of Medicine, an independent medical advisory group affiliated with the National Academy of Science, said in addition to reducing pain, marijuana can stimulate appetites and reduce nausea and vomiting. But the report, which analyzed multiple marijuana studies, said smoked marijuana is a “crude” delivery system and can lead to respiratory disease and adverse physical and psychological effects in some users. Side effects can include reduced motor functions, making it harder to do tasks like driving, and loss of short-term memory. The study said there is no conclusive evidence that marijuana is a gateway drug to more serious drugs like heroin, and few users become addicted to it.
About 90 percent of marijuana users don’t become addicted to it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Marijuana use is illegal under federal law. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this month called on federal prosecutors to crack down on states that have legalized it, but support for legalization is growing.
This month, California joined Alaska, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington in legalizing recreational marijuana use. The six states are among 29 that allow some form of medical marijuana use. It’s also legal in Washington, D.C.
While it’s illegal for minors to use marijuana in states where it is legal, Lauren Cummings, Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition executive director, said she’s concerned legalization will encourage illicit use among young people. She said it could stunt brain growth in young people. The brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25.
Cummings said many addicts the coalition works with say they used marijuana first.
“They’ll tell you, ‘If I had not started with marijuana, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Because it flipped the switch,’” she said. “They did have the makeup of becoming addicted and they did become addicted.”
Jon Gettman, an associate professor of criminal justice at Shenandoah University, said he respects the coalition’s position that addicts need to avoid marijuana. But he said the dangers of marijuana are over-hyped and it could reduce the opiate epidemic.
“They should learn more about the pharmacology of marijuana,” said Gettman, former chairman of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “And they should learn more about why it’s been used successfully as an alternative to opiates.”
Gettman noted marijuana reduces pain through different neural mechanisms than opiates. Marijuana reduces pain without lowering the heart rate or lung activity like opiates do. Reduced heart rate and lung activity from opiates leads to overdoses, which killed 39 people in the area last year and about 175 nationally per day.
Gettman said opiate deaths are lower in states where medical marijuana is legal. He said marijuana opponents’ criticism is often based on ideology rather than science.
“They have to look at the research that’s outside their comfort zone,” Gettman said. “They have to have an open mind.”
Hughie McGee, the owner of the Rivendell Recovery Center in White Post and a coalition member, said he supports legalizing medical and recreational marijuana. But he said marijuana isn’t strong enough to help someone in severe pain from an illness or injury the way opiates do.
McGee, a recovering alcoholic and addict who has been clean and sober since 1970, said he also supports legalizing heroin the way Portugal did in 2000, because it would eliminate the black market and vastly reduce imprisonment and violence related to drug use.
McGee said most people use marijuana and opiates without becoming addicted, but addicts have a chemical makeup in their brains that makes them predisposed to addiction.
“Addicts, we feel bad and then we want more,” he said. “If we’re dealing with an addict, we have to accept that if something works that they’re going to do it. And if it works really well, they’re going to do it twice.”
McGee said alcohol and tobacco are far more dangerous than pot, but are legal. He said alcoholism is far more prevalent than opiate addiction.
Alcoholism killed about 88,000 people annually between 2006-2010, according to the CDC. In 2016, opiate overdoses killed about 64,000 people.
McGee said education is key to reducing addiction. He noted that tobacco use has plummeted since the government banned cigarette commercials on television and did public advertising about how smoking causes lung cancer.
Unlike McGee, Vogel isn’t for recreational marijuana legalization, but she supports reducing penalties for first-time possession of small amounts. She said a marijuana conviction can make it difficult to get college scholarships or jobs and result in costly court fines and fees.
“We need desperately to reform our criminal marijuana laws,” Vogel said. “It’s huge mistake to put somebody in the criminal justice system for something like that.”
— Contact Evan Goodenow at firstname.lastname@example.org