by JOSEPH MILBANK
According to a recent poll conducted by Research America Incorporated for the University of Mary Washington, 61 percent of Virginians are in favor of legalizing recreational use of marijuana.
The legalization of recreational marijuana has become a subject of controversy in recent years. With eleven states and the District of Columbia now having legalized recreational use of marijuana, widespread debate on the issue has increased.
A University Relations article about the poll reported that this statistic is a large increase from 2017 in which a similar poll found that only 39 percent of Virginians were in favor of recreational use.
While the legalization of recreational marijuana appears to be growing in popularity among Virginians, some UMW students believe that legalization would be a step in the wrong direction.
“I watched someone close to me get into marijuana usage. He was fine at first, the first couple of months that he was regularly using. He started using multiple times a day until he hit the point where he seemed off when he wasn’t high. When he wasn’t able to use he was completely not himself. I’m open to the idea that some people may benefit, but the amount of people that, if marijuana was legalized, would go down the same road is too high,” said David Craig, a junior computer science major.
Virginia has already begun to loosen their laws. In 2015, the use of THCA oil was legalized for medical use in the treatment of epilepsy in Virginia.
Because of the overall increased percentage of people in favor of legalization, the issue will be at the forefront of voters’ minds in both the November 2019 Virginia elections and the upcoming 2020 presidential election.
While past Republican presidential administrations have been against legalization, President Trump stated in a press briefing at the end of August that he supported states making their own decisions on legalization.
The majority of Democratic presidential candidates support some form of legalization. These include legalization for medical use, decriminalization and full legalization for recreational use. One Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, supports federal decriminalization.
Some students also want more than just legalization; they want criminal justice reform for offenders of a law that they don’t believe in.
“I think recreational and medical marijuana should be legalized in Virginia so that it can be better regulated and keep users safer than having to invest in a risky illegal market, and there can be criminal justice reforms to focus on crimes that are actually fatally damaging to our community,” said Cat Montoya, a junior anthropology major.
Virginia’s special election on November 5 could also have a dramatic effect on legalization if the Democrats were to gain the two State Senate and two State House seats keeping them from being the majority.
The Research America Incorporated poll found that 72 percent of Virginia Democrats were in favor of the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, compared to the 62 percent of Independents and 41 percent of Republicans.
Another issue in Virginia involving the legality of marijuana for recreational use is its classification as a schedule one drug. Some students at UMW feel that this classification alongside drugs such as LSD and heroin, isn’t warranted.
Lucas Brandt, a senior business major, said, “It is insane that our government today considers marijuana to be as dangerous as heroin. We should legalize marijuana and expunge past convictions. We should also ensure that revenue from legalization is reinvested in communities hit hardest by the war on drugs, especially African American and other communities of color.”
Other students shared similar beliefs as Brandt.
“Since marijuana is used for medical bases and prescribed by doctors, then it is illogical to not have it legalized. There are many benefits to the uses and, most importantly, it has not killed anyone. Criminalization of marijuana means spending more money on those caught than actually criminalizing serious crimes involving violence,” said Aly Conrad, a junior sociology major.
This sentiment is felt among some Virginia State Senators as well. Senator Stephen Heretick has said that he plans to put decriminalization legislation in the 2020 session.
“I think it’s taken a long time for us to distinguish and understand there are fundamental differences between marijuana and all those other drugs that we see and hear on the news every day,” said Heretick.
Earlier this month Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring also said in a tweet that it was time for Virginia to move towards legalization.
“Virginia’s policy of criminalizing minor marijuana possession is not working. It’s needlessly creating criminals, the human costs are huge, it costs taxpayers millions, and the consequences fall disproportionately on African Americans and people of color,” Herring tweeted in July.
The upcoming November 5 election will be a pivotal moment for the future of legalized marijuana in Virginia. While it remains to be seen if legalization legislature will be passed, sentiment throughout the state appears to be moving in the direction of legalization for recreational use.