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Marijuana Reform: Prospects for Legalizing Pot in Virginia

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While four states have legalized marijuana and 17 have eliminated criminal penalties for possession of small amounts, arrests in Virginia are rising.

For nearly 50 years, marijuana has been wafting through popular culture, and in the 70’s there was serious talk of legalizing it, but as the nation moved to the political right, that idea went up in smoke.  Today, police in Virginia arrest 20,000-25,000 people a year for possession of marijuana, and this is one of 16 states where the numbers have been rising.  Statewide, pot-related arrests were up more than 5% from 2012 to 2013 – the fourth consecutive year of increase.

This trend defies a perception that possession of pot is not a serious offense.  That’s according to John Gettman, former director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and a professor of criminal justice at Shenandoah University. 

“Our judicial council did a survey of legislators, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and ranked the seriousness of all these different crimes in Virginia, and marijuana is in like the bottom 15 of all crimes in Virginia.  It’s thought to be about as serious as hunting without a license of trespassing on someone’s property.”

But some experts argue that marijuana could pose a risk to public health.  At the National Institute on Drug Abuse, psychologist Susan Weiss cites a 25-year study of a thousand people, beginning at age 13.

“Marijuana use is associated with a decrease in IQ and those people who used it the most showed the biggest decline.  People who used it a lot when they were young and then stopped in the last year or two before the last assessment – their IQ did not return to normal, and people who started when they were adults didn't show the same decline in IQ over this period.”

How serious was the impact on IQ?  Some subjects dropped as much as 8 points, and Gettman says the drug may be especially hazardous for certain groups of people.

“Marijuana is not something that’s recommended for people with certain psychiatric problems.  There are concerns about any kind of drug use during pregnancy.” 

Then there are concerns about highway safety.  Since it legalized recreational marijuana, Colorado has seen no increase in fatal traffic accidents, and some studies show people who have smoked pot tend to drive more slowly, but Weiss is worried:

“We do know that marijuana affects driving ability, and we do know that it’s associated with an increased risk of being in a car accident -- probably not as high as alcohol but the two combined are actually worse than either one alone.”

Then there’s the question of how dangerous the drug itself might be. Folks who favor legalizing pot point out that no one has ever died from an overdose, but at the University of California at San Francisco’s School of Medicine, professor Stanton Glantz says smoking anything is risky.

“In fact, marijuana smoke and tobacco smoke aren’t that different from wood smoke or even diesel exhaust.  They are all the result of incomplete combustion of organic material.”

Studies have not linked marijuana to lung cancer, but Glantz says even occasional smokers increase their risk of heart disease.  There’s a lot we still don’t know about marijuana and health – and since the stuff is illegal in most states, doing medical research is difficult, but everyone seems to agree that young people should steer clear of pot.  So does legalizing or decriminalizing mean more kids will start smoking.  We’ll answer that question in our next report.

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.
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