The Tide Turns on Legalizing Pot in Virginia

Seven more states legalize marijuana for recreational or medical use.


On Tuesday, seven more states legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use. Virginia was not among them—but it might be soon, if comments from State Sen. Tommy Norment offer any clues.

Several days ago Norment, told the Norfolk City Council it is "absolutely crazy that we continue to lock people up for possession of a modest amount of marijuana. We are tough on crime. It's a question of what crimes we want to be tough on." That's a big change for the conservative Republican, who voted against a measure to relax marijuana law last year, and another measure of how much the needle on the issue has moved lately.

But don't blaze up a spliff just yet. Norment indicated that he would like the State Crime Commission to study possible decriminalization. In Virginia, a study commission is often the place where issues go to die.

If the Crime Commission does study the issue, it will find much ground already plowed. In March, the Colorado Department of Public Safety issued its own report on the effects of marijuana legalization there. (Recreational pot use became legal in Colorado in 2013.) Its findings offer support for legalization, but not so much that the debate is over.

Some results were intuitively obvious: After legalization, marijuana use rose and arrests for possession fell. The number of hospitalizations "with possible marijuana exposures, diagnoses, or billing codes" spiked. So did tax revenue collected from the legal marijuana market.

Other results were more suprising: From 2014 to 2015, "the number of summons issued for Driving Under the Influence (of) marijuana or marijuana-in-combination with other drugs decreased 1 percent." Violent and property crimes fell after legalization (which doesn't mean legalization caused the drop, only that it did not lead to an increase).

Overall, the report cautioned against drawing sweeping conclusions for a couple of reasons. First, Colorado's experiment is too young to discern long-term trends. Second, "legalization may result in reports of increased use, when it may actually be a function of decreased stigma and legal consequences rather than actual changes in use patterns. Likewise, those reporting to poison control, emergency departments or hospitals may feel more comfortable discussing their recent use or abuse of marijuana for purposes of treatment." In other words, people might not be using marijuana much more—just talking about it more freely.

That hasn't kept prohibitionists from trying to paint as grim a picture as they can, however. A 2014 piece from the Heritage Foundation purporting to explain "Why Legalizing Pot Is a Bad Idea" noted that "pot-positive traffic fatalities" in Colorado "have gone up 100 percent." It didn't note that the statistic in no way means pot caused the fatalities, even indirectly. It merely meant that more drivers killed in crashes had evidence of pot in their systems. The National Institute on Drug Abuse points out that marijuana use "can remain detectable in body fluids for days or even weeks after intoxication." So someone who tokes up on Friday night, and dies in a crash while stone-cold sober the following Thursday, can still be counted as a pot-positive traffic fatality.

Another Heritage piece, "Rocky Mountain High Producing Some Undesirable Side Effects," lamented "increased use among teens, resulting in educational problems." How much of an increase? According to the Colorado Department of Safety report, "the number of juvenile marijuana arrests increased 5 percent." Suspensions from school for drugs stood at 506 per 100,000 students in 2008-2009. In 2014-2015, they had risen to 509 per 100,000 students. That's an increase, but hardly a tidal wave.

The same Heritage piece warns darkly about "dangerous growing practices," pesticides made from "improvised concoctions of chemicals," the "largely unregulated" market for medical marijuana and similar dangers from the "Cannabis-Industrial Complex." If you didn't know better, you might think you were reading an exposé on Monsanto in Mother Jones.

It's undeniably true that pot use is unhealthy, that it imposes social costs, that it is harmful to adolescents' developing brains, and so on. At the same time, marijuana prohibition inflicts harm as well: thousands of students denied college financial aid because of a drug conviction; over half a million arrests annually (roughly one every 37 seconds, diverting law-enforcement resources from more serious crimes); billions a year in government expenditures; grotesque racial disparities; and more. Yet those who argue against legalization want to count only the potential harm, not the potential benefits.

Coming from so-called conservatives, it's all a bit rich. To see why, just compare how groups such as Heritage talk about marijuana with how they talk about soda taxes or guns. When liberals try to slap excise taxes on sugary drinks, conservatives quite properly denounce the smothering embrace of the Nanny State. They also quite properly object to the idea that government should be able to restrict or prohibit anything that generates social costs, as if a marginal—even minuscule—economic gain trumps the fundamental right to individual autonomy. Well, those arguments apply just as neatly to pot as they do to Pepsi.

Likewise: If letting people smoke marijuana is bad for children, then letting people own guns is even worse. Depending on whose statistics you believe and what age you stop calling someone a child, several hundred to several thousand children are killed or injured by guns each year. Yet conservatives vociferously defend the individual right to keep and bear arms. If the deaths of children are not sufficient to prohibit firearm ownership by adults, then the minor and often temporary impairment of young people from illicit pot use can hardly be sufficient to prohibit adult marijuana use, either.

The conceit that conservatives want smaller government has been growing harder to sustain. But those who do should, like Norment, show it by recognizing that you can have limited government or you can have the war on drugs—but not both.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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  1. “Soon” meaning a period of years. “Legalize” meaning decriminalize. Etc.

  2. Virginia is the place where liquor stores are all owned by the State, yes? Let’s all hold our breath waiting for them to legalize pot.

    1. This is the sentiment I have.

    2. Wasn’t Washington the same way with liquor stores?

    3. Virginia is one of the eighteen ABC control states where the government has a monopoly on some or all alcohol sales.

      But that doesn’t mean as much as you might think. The prohibitionists may be outvoted by legislators greedy for all that tax money. Plus, in a state like Virginia where the government runs all the liquor stores, the prohibitionists are less able to play the “chaos” card.

      The current calls are for “decriminalization” but given the love for alcohol control I think Virginia is more likely to see full legalization.

    4. I would assume that Virginia would be one of the last states clinging to marijuana prohibition due to the vast numbers of military personnel. I can’t foresee the military backing down from it’s “zero tolerance” policy on marijuana. I am anxiously waiting to see how the military handles legalization in California with it’s large presence in SoCal. As it is (although may have changed since I was there), military members are allowed to drink on base at 18, to try to curtail forays to Tijuana. I wonder if other exemptions will occur.

      1. I don’t think that will matter. The laws of the Commonwealth do not override federal laws or the UCMJ.

        But you are correct that the military will have to come to terms with this now that 20% of the US population live in areas where this is legal.

      2. Military under 21 can drink on base? When did that happen? I wasn’t the case when I was in 10-15 years ago.

        1. IIRC, that used to be the case back in the Vietnam era, but that got changed when the feds decided to force the states to implement nationwide 21 yo drinking age using federal highway funds as a bludgeon.

        2. This only applied to those stationed in San Diego, again to try to curtail service members going to Tijuana. They very well may have changed the rules since I was there, that was 20 years ago.

    5. If on a referendum it would have a chance since all the liberals from elsewhere in Northern Va.

  3. No chance.

  4. It didn’t note that the statistic in no way means pot caused the fatalities, even indirectly. It merely meant that more drivers killed in crashes had evidence of pot in their systems.

    Looks like the Heritage Foundation has been taking lessons from MADD.

    1. Remember this next time a SoCon tells you how very, very much they have in common with libertarians. AFAIK, MJ isn’t mentioned in the bible, but the Fallwellists are still agin’ it.

      1. From Peter Bagge:

        ‘My problem with you libertarians isn’t just that you want to legalize drugs and prostitution, it’s that you won’t admit you’re conservatives!’

        1. A funny position. The right can’t comprehend why we’d want to maximize human freedom on all kinds of social issues. The left can’t comprehend why we’d want to maximize economic liberty.

          It’s probably a good thing that at least some of the right think we’re the same as them. Economic freedom is actually more important than social freedoms, regardless of how bad proggies want to demonize us for thinking that. They think we worship money, but that is because they’re retarded.

          What is more dangerous, a weak, penniless government voted in by those who hate gays, non-whites, etc., or a wealthy government elected by the same group? Even if all your dreams are evil, it hardly matters if you don’t have the cold, hard cash to make them a reality for everyone else.

      2. I live in Va and most people I know would approve it and I don’t know a lot of liberals.

  5. I guess they legalized dildos, too.

    1. Weed dildos?

    2. I don’t think they were ever prohibited statewide in Virginia.

    3. We have had sex shops as long as I remember and I am 63.

  6. I think it will happen here sooner rather than later. The Northern VA, Richmond, and Charlottesville areas will pull along the rest of the state (in a good way, for a change).

    1. It will be interesting to see which way Norfolk (etc) goes, given the large number of military people and the high concentration of fundagelicals (Pat Robertson’s HQ is down there).

      For non-virginians, NoVa (DC Suburbs, solidly blue) is the largest metro area with ~6 million people, followed by Norfolk with 1.7 million (split) and Richmond with 1.2 million (split).

      1. Yeah, that’s why I left them out. But even though some of the other urban areas are split I suspect the brand of Republican there will be more inclined to go along with some relaxation of MJ policy (military higher-ups not withstanding).

        1. Many on the right here in Va support legalization of pot, many used to smoke it or still do. Many of us have jobs in public safety that have random tests so we cannot take the chance to lose our jobs.

      2. In general, the big split over weed prohibition has tended to be age. Hardcore Christians nowadays tend to more singularly focus their conservatism on issues of more obvious import to Christianity; they have become largely indifferent/nonideological with respect to drug control strategy. (Though I live in a very secular place; in places where self-identification as an Evangelical is more the default, such people will probably as a whole not be so peculiarly “Christian” in their thought.) Back during the marriage-referendum days, medical marijuana initiatives were widely thought to be helped when gay marriage was on the ballot by the extremely effective youth mobilization efforts of Evangelical groups.
        Due to the same youthful skew, the military population is likely to help decrim/legalization. Of course neither makes a real personal difference to their own lives, whose main concern is keeping weed out of their urine stream. But most Americans who favor legalization smoke rarely or never themselves, and libertarianism is a remarkably common sentiment in the military.

        1. My generation (born in 50’s) grew up in the time pot started being popular and millions of us smoked it and some still do. There are a lot of Christians here in Va but it is not usually the religious zealot brand that are nuts. I think a referendum would have a decent chance because of Northern Va, Richmond and Norfolk area.

  7. RE: The Tide Turns on Legalizing Pot in Virginia
    Seven more states legalize marijuana for recreational or medical use.

    Damn these voters to hell!
    Don’t these people this isn’t a free country any more?

    1. Ten years and several moral panics from now, they’ll no doubt be able to carry their monstrously taxed, arbitrarily state-formulated approved marijuana products home from one of the handful of megachain-manufacturers that can afford the regulatory burden. Just don’t look for a blunt wrap to roll it in or a vape pen to put your oil in; those are tobacco products that appeal to children. And don’t look for your munchies in large bags, with nasty “chemicals” added to make them tasty, or in neighborhoods with a lot of black and brown folks whose poor self-control is constantly being “exploited” by Big Food. Remember to bring your own state-approved reusable weed bag, to raise awareness of global warming. And above all, do steer clear of all the drugs that are even less harmful, more fun, and potentially more therapeutic than marijuana. Possessing them, after all, is still a felony.
      In short: Don’t worry. As long as Americans fail, to their very core beliefs, to regard private behavior as a private matter, occasional shifts in social approval of a particular practice are but minor setbacks in the steady advance of government intrusion.

  8. I live in Va and would be surprised if they legalized pot but I never thought we would vote for as many Democrats either. Take away Northern Va liberals from elsewhere and it would certainly never happen. This has never been an issue for me really, I used to smoke but quit as a young man but I have known many that do but I don’t remember any arrests. It seems it is a victim less crime that cops pay little attention to.

  9. until I looked at the paycheck saying $4730 , I did not believe that…my… brother woz like actualy bringing in money part time from there computar. . there friend brother started doing this for less than 7 months and resently paid for the morgage on there home and bought a new Cadillac …….


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