Momentum to legalize marijuana continues to build…as it should

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[Editor’s note: The following commentary by veteran Virginia journalist Roger Chesley was written after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s recent announcement of his intention to push for an end to marijuana prohibition in the state, but prior to today’s historic vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to end federal criminal penalties. It was initially published in the Virginia Mercury]

My attitudes toward America’s hypocritical — and racially biased — stance on marijuana were formed during my high school and college years in Washington. Those sentiments have only hardened since then.

I’ve revisited those days as the commonwealth now considers legalizing pot. Gov. Ralph Northam said he plans to propose legislation to do just that when the General Assembly convenes next month. Bringing sanity to cannabis laws is overdue in Virginia and many other states.

In November, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission released a 274-page report weighing the benefits and drawbacks. The assessment by the state’s legislative watchdog agency noted current marijuana laws disproportionately affect African Americans and other people of color despite widespread use by other races, and how legalization could generate more than $300 million per year in tax revenues.

Boosting the state’s bottom line often sways formerly reluctant legislators, even if it means doing the (previously) unthinkable.

I understand concerns about “driving high,” underage toking (much like teen boozing), and other deleterious effects. Still, it’s way past time to treat marijuana more akin to alcohol, and to end the nonsensical incarceration of people who use it.

Drug arrests can hinder getting a job because it saddles people with criminal records. Police and prosecutors usually scoop up Blacks and Latino Americans disproportionately, by the way. That’s no surprise given race relations and criminal justice in the United States.

I came of age in the mid-to-late 1970s. I first attended mostly White, all-boys, Catholic high school a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. After graduation, I studied at Howard University, a historically Black institution that’s also in Northwest D.C.

This was at a time when the legal drinking age was under 21 in many states and Washington. So it was fairly easy for even high school students to buy beer or wine, or get someone a little older to cop it.

When I was in high school, it wasn’t uncommon to hear about classmates’ exploits – and embarrassments – from chugging too much the previous weekend. The subjects of these drink-fests were usually White.

Blacks didn’t necessarily abstain, but some of the guys I knew in my high school (and others in the area) preferred weed to beer. That might be an oversimplification, but I doubt I’m the only one who noticed it.

The same was true in college. The smell of pot occasionally wafted around house parties, concerts in the park, or when small groups of friends hung out. The aroma is familiar and unmistakable, even if you haven’t smelled it in years. (Full disclosure: I drank beer as a teen, but have never smoked weed; though, unlike Bill Clinton, I “inhaled” enough when I was around others.)

Back then, beer and wine got a pass while pot and its alluring monikers (Kush, cannabis, weed) were tagged as diabolical by lawmakers and police. Some of this started after the absurd, alarmist depictions in films like 1936’s “Reefer Madness” (kids, ask your grandparents).

The fact that pot was lumped in with harder drugs like cocaine, heroin and LSD never made any sense. That marijuana has been linked moreso to Blacks and Latinos — even though the Brookings Institution and others note Blacks and Whites use the drug at nearly the same rate — played a role in how this country has enforced marijuana laws.

JLARC’s report, for example, noted: “From 2010–2019, the average arrest rate of Black individuals for marijuana possession was 3.5 times higher than the arrest rate for White individuals (and significantly higher than arrest rates for other racial or ethnic groups). Black individuals were also convicted at a much higher rate—3.9 times higher than White individuals.”

Statistics like this are among the reasons thousands of people took to the streets nationwide after the killing of George Floyd by police, in a quest for greater racial equity in the justice system. But I digress.

Slowly, the country is coming to terms with marijuana.

Though the drug is still considered an illegal substance under federal law, 15 states and D.C. have legalized it for adult use. It’s a paradoxical stance between the feds and states, hewing to the schizophrenia America has displayed toward pot.

The commonwealth does allow medical use of marijuana. This year, the state also decriminalized simple possession of pot, though it remains a civil infraction that can lead to a $25 fine. (Just Wednesday, a United Nations commission removed medical marijuana “from a category of the world’s most dangerous drugs,” The New York Times reported.)

So what might Virginia do? JLARC said legalization could create 11,000 to more than 18,000 jobs in the industry. By the fifth year of sales, the agency noted, “commercial marijuana could produce $154 (million)–$308 million in tax revenue.”

That’s a huge sin tax that should entice legislators. Besides, a poll last year of 1,009 adults in Virginia found that 61 percent favor legalizing marijuana use for adults. The support was higher than in previous polls about legalization.

Given the choice, I still wouldn’t puff. Personal preference, I suppose.

No adult should be locked up for deciding otherwise, though. Sanctions for toking are an anachronism. Let’s clear the air about the hypocrisy.

Before joining the Virginia Mercury, Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit.

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