Republicans Block Marijuana Reform in State House

Jan 28, 2016

A new poll by Virginia Commonwealth University shows more than half of adults in this state – 62% -- think recreational marijuana should be legal, and state lawmakers introduced 21 pot-related bills during the current session, but few if any will come up for a vote.   

A House Courts of Justice subcommittee considered nine bills involving marijuana, including one to decriminalize the drug, but Republicans outnumber Democrats on the panel, and voting along party lines, they tabled all nine proposals.

“We, being the majority of Republicans, have no interest in making marijuana legal.” 

That’s committee chairman David Albo of Northern Virginia.  He was snowed in on the day of the vote, but he opposes lighter penalties for possession of pot.

“Marijuana is not good for you.  Now what they’re going to say is it’s no worse than alcohol, and that’s true.  Alcohol has been a scourge in this country, and if you look at how alcohol has ruined people’s lives, it’s really sad, but I don’t think adding marijuana to the mix is going to solve the problem.”

Albo argues that nobody goes to jail for a first offense.

“I’ve been practicing law for almost 28 years.  I used to be a prosecutor.  I know what I’m talking about.  It is near impossible to get one millisecond in a jail for smoking marijuana.”

Credit Drugabuse.gov

But a second offense, growing or selling marijuana -- that's another matter.  Michael Rittenhouse-Rigby, a resident of Nelson County, was arrested for cultivating 7 marijuana plants.

“It’s an anti-depressant for me," he explains. "I’ve taken anti-depressants, so I know that works for me.”

He spent $2,000 on a lawyer and lost at least $5,000 more when he shut down his landscaping business and went off to the county jail for 100 days.  It was, he recalls, a horrible place.

“It was lights 24 hours a day," Rigby recalls. " It was dominoes being slammed down, people yelling, people fighting, people that were there because of meth addictions that had no teeth.  The dead skin in the bunks was the most disgusting -- and the smell.  It was filthy."

And unnecessary, he says, for growing a plant that should be legal.

"Have I endangered anyone’s life? No!”

So the news that Virginia’s House has blocked any reform in the state’s marijuana laws makes him angry.

"It’s tyranny when you see the state seal of Virginia.  It is a joke. There’s nothing that I can do to change their mind except hope that someday they get locked up for 100 days, because they won’t do well.”

In Fluvanna County, Becky Blanton also wonders why state lawmakers won’t back away from criminal penalties for growing or using pot.  She’s a former cop from Colorado, where the drug is legal, and she hears good things from her friends back home.

“Crime is way down.  People are less violent.  Overall, they’re not seeing the problems that everybody thought.  It’s not the marijuana apocalypse that everybody feared.”

The state is swimming in new tax revenue, but Blanton says there are still those who think liberalized marijuana laws are unwise.

“The big argument is it’s a gateway drug.  You know if you smoke pot, then eventually you’re going to be smoking meth or crack or doing cocaine or whatever.  I haven’t seen that be necessarily true.  I think if you have the personality to do cocaine or heroin or other hard drugs,  you’re going to do it whether you start with marijuana or start with a beer.”

Delegate Albo admits he might have supported a couple of reforms had he been on hand for the vote.  He thinks, for example, that  it’s a mistake to deprive people of their driver’s license for six months if they’re convicted of possessing pot.

“We probably should never have passed that law in the first place. It might not have been a smart move to start suspending licenses for things that weren’t driving related.”

And he doesn’t like the fact that people like Mike end up with a criminal record that can damage their chances for future employment.  That’s the kind of thing that gives reformers hope.  The full committee could opt to consider any of those bills that were tabled, and several senate bills are still pending.  Lawmakers could be influenced by a new poll from Virginia Commonwealth University. It found 82% of younger respondents in the state, 86% of people making more than $100,000 a year and 71% of Republicans  support reduced sanctions for possession of marijuana.