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The Wide Ranging Opinions on Marijuana Legalization Among Virginia's Lawmakers

AP Photo / Jim Mone, File

Virginia lawmakers are some of the more progressive in the nation when it comes to marijuana policy. Matt Laslo has the story from the Capitol on the broad array of reasons that has even staunch conservatives supporting some legalization efforts.

Virginians have some of the most conservative lawmakers in the nation representing them in Washington, but marijuana is an issue that recently has fostered strange bed fellows. Take Virginia Republican Tom Garrett – a vocal newcomer to the conservative House Freedom Caucus. He’s sponsoring a bill to outright decriminalize marijuana nationwide.

“Well so I prosecuted for ten years, and I think inherently where you have laws that aren't uniformly enforced, by definition you have injustice. It frustrates me that the federal government chooses to enforce its own marijuana policies in some states, and then turn a blind eye in others.”

Currently eight states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana to be used recreationally, while more than fifteen allow it for some form of medicinal use. Garrett says the federal government needs to catch up. But you know what – he actually voted against decriminalizing marijuana while in Richmond. Still, Garrett is a libertarian and says his personal opposition doesn’t matter.

It frustrates me that the federal government chooses to enforce its own marijuana policies in some states, and then turn a blind eye in others.

“It's not about that, it's about letting the states do what the states feel is right for them, because that's the de facto anyway, except where they prosecute. And they do. How is it that you can go to prison in one state and not be looked at in another, and it's not right.”

That’s not how most Republicans see the issue. GOP leaders have gone out of their way to repeatedly block marijuana related amendments from hitting the House floor this session. But Southwest Virginia Republican Morgan Griffith opposes his party leaders and supports medical marijuana for limited purposes. He was won over after a family in his district moved to Colorado so their daughter could access cannabis oils to stop her epileptic seizures.

“She was having to guess at what kind of tincture to cook up, that she would actually boil marijuana leaves for her daughter and then pull out the oils and use the oils. And her daughter would take the oils, this is not about getting high, and her seizures went from 300 to 1 in a given period.”

Griffith is pushing GOP leaders to take up his bill to loosen the restrictions on doing research on marijuana to test it for medicinal purposes.

“You know most of your research facilities don't want to invest in something where they might be in trouble a year from now or two years from now. So we want to give them that stability that as long as you're using it to research for medicinal purposes, let's use it. And of course as I've always said, if we can use opiates and barbiturates, we certainly ought to be able to use marijuana for medicinal purposes.”

For Northern Virginia Democrat Don Beyer the current debate on marijuana misses the point.  

“I've long thought that we should treat our drug use as a public health crisis, rather than a criminal justice issue.”

Beyer says he’s seen firsthand how other nations treat drug use.

“I served Switzerland for four years as ambassador, where everything's legal. And there actually was a heroin clinic behind the train station in Bern. And people who'd flunked out of methadone clinics twice and were adults, they had to be I think 25, 26, could go there and get their heroin shot every morning and then go to work.”

Beyer isn’t advocating for legalizing all drugs but says the U.S. is behind on how it deals with drug abuse.

I've long thought that we should treat our drug use as a public health crisis, rather than a criminal justice issue.

For Southeast Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott the issue is all about criminal justice. He supports medicinal marijuana but says the federal prohibition has left tens of thousands of minorities behind bars in one state for something that is legal in their neighboring states.

“But the fact that it's sold over the counter for recreational use in several states now, shows that we really need to reevaluate it. My view is that it should not be a federal crime.”

Sure, there remain staunch opponents to marijuana in any form in the Commonwealth, but the state’s congressional delegation is among the growing number of lawmakers leading the charge to get the federal government to catch up with the many states that dub the federal marijuana prohibition as a relic of the past.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association

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