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.