One of the last places you’d expect to see marijuana law reform moving forward is in Virginia. The urban areas of NoVa (northern Virginia) are tied to the politics of Washington DC and the rural areas of the rest of the state are reliably conservative and Republican.
But lately, the state has produced two baby step bills that advance our cause of ending adult marijuana prohibition, while two Virginia congressmen have introduced three bombshells at the federal level.
Baby Steps at the State Level
Virginia NORML advocated for numerous bills this session, but one of the two that have survived the House and Senate and now await Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s signature is just about the tiniest baby step you can take toward legalization.
In Virginia, like many prohibition states, the misdemeanor that comes with a marijuana possession charge also comes with an administrative penalty of driver’s license suspension, whether the possession involved a vehicle or not.
Senate Bill 1091 makes it so a judge may substitute community service in place of the six-month suspension of a driver’s license for marijuana possession. It only applies to deferred dispositions of marijuana possession charges. It only applies to adults; juveniles will still have their licenses suspended. It doesn’t apply if you were in a vehicle when caught with marijuana. And the whole idea will be scrapped if the federal government says Virginia could lose federal highway funds over it.
Jenn-Michelle Pedini, Executive Director of Virginia NORML, expressed some shock at the amount of community service proposed in place of the driver’s license suspension, telling Weed News, “The judge would give you an extra 76 hours of community service on top of 24 hours already required. That’s a hundred hours of community service, that’s the kind of number [of hours] you’d get for a felony in Virginia.”
While it may be the tiniest baby step, SB 1091 will still have a huge impact. When people busted for weed lose their driver’s licenses, that can lead to losing their jobs, and that can begin a downward spiral of missing bills, rent, and court-ordered payments that can result in homelessness, crime, and recidivism.
The other bill passed in Virginia awaiting the governor’s signature is Senate Bill 1027. This bill expands Virginia’s existing program for the medical use of cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol-acid (THC-A) for the treatment of epilepsy. Under current Virginia law, the CBD oil must be at least 15 percent CBD. The THC-A oil must be at least 15 percent THC-A. Neither oil may contain more than 5 percent psychoactive THC. CBD and THC-A are not psychoactive.
SB 1027 would allow registered pharmacists to grow cannabis plants to manufacture the oils for patients. Currently, patients must acquire their medicine from out of state, risking state and federal drug trafficking charges. This is another baby step that simply provides access to the existing Virginia epilepsy patients and nobody else.
Bombshells at the Federal Level
Meanwhile, Republican congressmen from Virginia have introduced three bombshell bills that would decriminalize medical or recreational marijuana at the federal level.
In the last Congress, independent Democratic-Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders sponsored S 2237, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2015. This time around, it is Virginia Republican Congressman Thomas Garrett who is behind HR 1227, virtually the same legislation that would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, leaving the legality of marijuana to determined by the states and banning the interstate trafficking of marijuana to those states that maintain prohibition.
Another Virginia Republican, Rep. Morgan Griffith, has sponsored two similar bills that would extend protections to the states that have legalized medical marijuana. HR 714, called The Legitimate Use of Medical Marijuana Act (LUMMA). This bill would reschedule cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule II, empowering doctors to write actual prescriptions, not mere recommendations, for medical cannabis. The bill would also explicitly provide that the Controlled Substances Act does not prevent any state from engaging in a medical cannabis program.
HR 715, entitled the Compassionate Access Act, contains the same rescheduling and state medical marijuana protections as LUMMA, but also adds the removal of cannabidiol from the Controlled Substances Act altogether and provides that scientific research into cannabis must be conducted by an entity other than the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Alas, the progressive Republicans from Virginia may be blocked by a regressive Republican from Virginia. The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act and the Compassionate Access Act were both referred to the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte, a congressman who believes this:
“Marijuana is a dangerous substance that has many more drawbacks then benefits that some people derive from… They have never found any use for marijuana that was better than already approved for prescription drugs… The evidence regarding the effect that it has, particularly on young people is concerning. It is not my purpose to change the law with regard to marijuana. I have not signed off on the idea that the best way to deal with these issues would be to change the categorization of marijuana.”
Those two bills and the LUMMA were also referred to the House Energy & Commerce Committee, chaired by Oregon’s lone federal Republican, Rep. Greg Walden. While Rep. Walden has exhibited some support for keeping the federal government from prosecuting medical marijuana states, last year he voted no on an amendment to keep the feds’ hands off the recreational marijuana states.
Both medical bills have now been referred by Rep. Walden from Energy & Commerce to the Health Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Michael Burgess, a Republican from Texas. In a 2014 hearing, Rep. Burgess noted “this nation is in a significant experiment to legalize marijuana,” and that “Those who suffer from addiction often start at a young age, with alcohol and marijuana, and then move to other drugs like opioids.”
The Compassionate Access Act has also been referred by Rep. Goodlatte from the Judiciary Committee to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina. Rep. Gowdy has opposed all federal marijuana reform bills and takes ” a dim view” of legalizing marijuana.