Now is the Time to Legalize Marijuana in VirginiaNow is the time to legalize marijuana in Virginia.  But we can’t just “set it and forget it…”

Over my decade of criminal law practice in Virginia, I’ve dealt with a lot of marijuana cases. Since day one, I couldn’t help but think how absurd it was that the Commonwealth is still prosecuting individuals for using it. 

Fortunately, there’s a national recognition that is taking hold in the push for legalization of marijuana across the United States. Even so much so that candidates running for local, state and national office are committing to “legalize it.” 

With that being said, I do think that if and when marijuana is ultimately legalized, our lawmakers should do so thoughtfully and with the foresight that we do need to study the implications of marijuana (both positive and negative).

When you get some time, listen to this podcast…

If you haven’t already, take some time to listen to Joe Rogan’s podcast concerning the legalization debate. You can find the YouTube link here.  (To be clear, I understand Joe Rogan is a polarizing figure for many.  Indeed, I disagree with him on many fronts, but this debate is good).  In it, Rogan has two guests that are very entrenched in the legalization movement with very opposing views. 

During the debate, very good points are raised that we all should consider.

1. Simply put, America Should Favor Freedom.

In a country that touts personal liberty, anytime our government prohibits any activity, such prohibition should be done so with great reflection, justification, and skepticism.   When considering the justification of outright prohibiting the use of marijuana in Virginia, particularly when alcohol is legal, there’s simply fair basis to keep it illegal.

While any person may certainly choose not to use marijuana, or associate with individuals that do, the government should not step in the way for others to make their own choice to partake.

2. Labeling People Criminals for Life is Absurd and Unfairly Applied Based Upon Race and Socioeconomic Status.

The implications of being labeled a criminal in Virginia (be your charge a misdemeanor or felony) is a lifelong scar.  Did you know that in Virginia, you cannot expunge any conviction for any offense – ever. (I’ve written about it here).  Indeed, while Virginia has a “first-offender” program for personal marijuana use, that charge is not expungable even if it is ultimately dismissed.   That means, irrespective of a person receiving jail time or just a fine, they will have to answer “yes” to any job application or other lawful questionnaire that inquires “have you ever been charged with or convicted of a crime?”

I believe with that requirement, the consequences of being prosecuted for marijuana in Virginia are self-evident.  An individual with a criminal record will be looked at differently for job prospects, housing, loans, insurance purposes, and a whole host of other things. 

It’s also quite clear that in our flawed criminal justice system, minorities and the poor are disproportionately affected by any criminal statute.  They are more likely to be investigated by law enforcement, charged with a crime, and sentenced more harshly.  Of course, this applies to marijuana prosecutions. 

Given that, the mere unfairness when it comes to the application of marijuana laws warrants them to be rescinded.

3. Legalizing Marijuana Makes Financial Sense.

Prosecuting any crime costs us, the taxpayers, money.  We pay for more officers, prosecutors, judges, probation officers, jails, court clerks, etc.  Having practiced criminal law for ten years, it’s clear to me that our resources are already limited, and no one wants to raise taxes to pay for anything. Given that, it really makes no sense to spend our limited resources on prosecuting marijuana cases.  Simply put, we have more serious concerns to address.

What’s more, clipping individuals’ employment prospects because of marijuana prosecutions hurts us all.  Many times, people charged with marijuana are younger at the start of their careers.  And having a criminal conviction inhibits their ability to start off their pursuits on the right track.  And, as stated above, because marijuana laws tend to impact minorities and the poor disproportionally, they are often individuals that are also facing unfair bias in the workplace.  So their problems are compounded.

Many may respond to this with “well that doesn’t affect me. So why should I care?”  You should care because when people have a hard time getting jobs, they are more likely to have to look for government assistance, which puts a strain on all of our resources.   We as a community should look for ways to help people be self-sustaining.  Prosecuting them for marijuana does the opposite.

Of course, there’s also the inevitable tax revenue that would come from legalizing and taxing marijuana sales.   This one is pretty straight forward in favor of legalization. 

Hold on, though, it’s not that simple.

With all that said, that doesn’t mean that marijuana should just be ignored. With legalization, we should strive to understand it and ultimately regulate it.

While I certainly agree that marijuana should be legal, I do think that it’s a drug that is still not well understood.  Frankly, that’s because it’s been made illegal so we haven’t had an opportunity to study it. Let’s do that.

1. Today’s Weed isn’t Your Daddy’s Weed.

Look, THC (the active ingredient in MJ) is still not well understood.  And with the prevalence of edibles and more potent marijuana in general, the marijuana being used now is clearly stronger than in past generations.  With strong drugs (of any kind), there are clearly concerns of side effects of usage.  With legalization, there must be a recognition that we need to understand those side effects better. 

2. Marijuana May Affect the Vulnerable (the Young and Those Susceptible to Mental Health Issues) Differently.

I want to be clear, I’m not a doctor nor do I have a thorough understanding of the limited research into marijuana usage and its side effects.  But I think it’s safe to say that it (like any drug) will have side effects.  And like any drug, it’s more likely to impact those more vulnerable, young people and people who are affected by mental health issues.

Given that, I think we as a society also need to recognize that marijuana doesn’t come without consequences just because those consequences aren’t yet thoroughly understood.  We need to take specific steps in limiting access to marijuana to young people (like we do tobacco and alcohol) as well as educate the public on the concerns that exist regarding how marijuana may affect those with mental health concerns. 

Just like alcohol not being “right for everyone,” the same is true with marijuana.  With the legalization of it, we must take the opportunity to educate the public as soon as possible about both the benefits and the concerns.

3. And Yes, Marijuana Does Certainly Have a Downside.

When it comes to the criminal justice system, I’m about as progressive as one can be. But I can also recognize that marijuana does have its downsides just from my own experiences. I’ve had personal friends that used marijuana and it clearly affects their drive, focus, and lifestyle.  I’ve known people who have used marijuana to the extent that it’s harmed their relationships with friends and family.  Marijuana, like anything, can be a vice.  So in arguing for legalization, we must also not lose credibility in agreeing with the basics – marijuana can be bad.   That said, human beings have the right to make their own decisions, even if those decisions aren't perfect. 

James S. Abrenio
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Focusing on criminal, traffic defense and personal injury cases