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Marijuana Reforms: Sales Potential

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Virginia is rarely a trendsetter when it comes to legislation.  Attorney General Mark Herring, who was out front on the issue of gay marriage, says he’s taking a wait-and-see approach to reforming marijuana laws, but several factors could accelerate change.

This month, the Virginia legislature will consider a bill to decriminalize marijuana, but before it can be debated it must clear a committee co-chaired by long-time Williamsburg Senator Tommy Norment.

“This is not Colorado or the state of Washington.  I think it’ll make for an interesting presentation, however I think the marijuana plant will wilt very quickly on the vine before the House and Senate Courts Committee.”

But there are some factors that could change minds and votes in Virginia. Experts estimate, for example, that it costs the state more than $60 million a year to arrest, try and punish people for marijuana-related offenses.  Richmond lawyer Bill Linka considers that a waste of tax dollars.

"It costs about $80-$100 a day to lock somebody up, to put somebody in jail for 10, 20 or 30 days– I just don’t know how it makes any kind of fiscal sense."

And, he says, marijuana cases are clogging up the courts, using too many resources in relation to the harm of the crime.

"You have to have the police officer there.  It has to be tested down at the state laboratory under some circumstances.  You have to have all the courthouse personnel there – the security, the judges, and even if they spend five minutes on a case, that’s a fairly large chunk of taxpayer money to give some kid a hard time over $5 worth of marijuana."

There is also a growing concern about the way marijuana laws are enforced.  Jon Gettman, a professor of criminal justice at Shenandoah University, says African-Americans are far more likely to be arrested.

"The arrest rate for blacks is 3-4 times higher than it is for whites in every jurisdiction in the country.  This is not a city thing or a Southern thing or an East Coast thing.  San Francisco, Washington, DC, Baltimore, New York – you name a place and that disparity will exist in the arrest rates."

Others who favor decriminalizing or even legalizing pot point to a huge windfall in Colorado, which has legalized recreational and medical marijuana.  In the first ten months of last year, it took-in $50 million in tax revenues.

Virginia-based tobacco firms may also be pondering the sales potential of pot. 

"The tobacco companies have, for decades, been thinking about getting into the marijuana business."

Stanton Glantz is a professor at the University of California’s School of Medicine in San Francisco.

"Phillip Morris even went to so far as to start studying marijuana smoke."

That was back in the 70’s, when President Richard Nixon was strongly opposed to reducing criminal penalties for possession of pot, so Glantz says Phillip Morris, British-American Tobacco and RJ Reynolds never went public with their interest. 

Even now, they deny that they’re looking at pot as the next addition to their portfolios, but an internal memo from the 70’s makes the case.  “We’re in the business of relaxing people who are tense and providing a pick up for people who are bored or depressed,” it says. “The human needs that our product fills will not go away.  The only real threat to our business is that society will find other means of satisfying these needs.”

One other factor that could hold sway as Virginia considers legalizing or decriminalizing pot.  Those approaches are increasingly accepted by mainstream experts like Richard Bonnie, a professor of law at UVA who sat on a federal commission that recommended decriminalization in 1972.

"I just am flabbergasted that it has taken 40 years  for people to realize that punishing people in jail and giving them criminal records for using marijuana just makes no sense."

And a new poll shows a clear majority of Virginians – 60% -- support decriminalizing pot, while 75% favor legalizing medical marijuana. 

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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