Day #094: The 800 pound green gorilla in the neighborhood

Legalized cannabis is no longer stuck in the distant promised land of Rocky Mountain high. This changes things for Richmond and Virginia.

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Legalize cannabis at the state level. Strike out Richmond ordinances that deal with possession, but keep ordinances that deal with distribution and Sec. 110-49 which makes it illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana.
  • Difficulty: 5 — The barriers in Virginia at the moment are high, but they are decreasing at an increasing rate.

I don’t smoke cannabis.1 I am an advocate for the legalization of cannabis.

Nationally, this is no longer a provocative claim. Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington DC (soon) have all legalized marijuana. This summer, The New York Times Editorial Board called for repealing the federal ban on marijuana, and in 2013 a majority of Americans supported legalizing marijuana for the first time according to Gallup.

Entering this project I repeatedly told myself, “I will not write about cannabis.”2 Tuesday, the success of Initiative 71 in Washington DC changed the opportunity cost of maintaining strict laws in areas bordering the nation’s capitol. This only increases the need for a pragmatic reduction of laws addressing cannabis in Virginia and Richmond.

Initiative 71 passed with 69.4% of the vote on Tuesday. If the measure is certified by the DC government and passes a 60-day Congressional review,3 then possession of two ounces and six cannabis plants by individuals 21 years and older will be legal in Virginia’s northern neighbor.

Unlike the systems set up in Colorado and Washington which have highly regulated commercial dispensaries, Initiative 71 paves the way for a “grow and give” system–for the time being.4 With the measure passed, the Washington Post is reporting the DC City Council is expected to submit follow-up legislation to voters and Congress to establish a system to sell and tax the drug in the District next year.

There are many convincing arguments in the public realm for the decriminalization and legalization of cannabis. The prohibition is unsuccessful at achieving its goals. The savings from law enforcement would be significant. Nationally, $3.6 billion was spent by states on cannabis possession enforcement in 2010. Estimates for Virginia range from $67 million to $125 million. The creation of a medical and commercial system can generate incredible amounts of tax revenue. Colorado’s tax revenue is more than $8 million per month and growing. Commercialization would take power and revenue away from domestic gangs and international cartels.

Cannabis abuse is a medical issue that needs to be solved outside of the justice system. Despite similar rates of use as whites, arrests disproportionately affect African Americans and hispanics. In 2010, African Americans were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. The prohibition makes criminals out of millions who would otherwise not be criminals, and it erodes the rule of law. 7.3% of Americans over the age of twelve regularly use cannabis and there were 658,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012. Despite being listed as a Class I narcotic by the Department of Justice, Cannabis has medical benefits.

These are and have been convincing arguments, but on Tuesday something else changed about how to choose CBD products for pain relief. Legal cannabis is no longer in the distant land of the Rocky Mountain high. Instead, it’s on the other side of the Potomac, and Richmond is now the first and last pit stop of every tourist from south of the Mason-Dixon Line headed to and from the first “green city” east of the Mississippi. Legislation and change take time. Richmond and Virginia need to prepare now, if they want to have laws capable of addressing the state of cannabis in two years, five years, and 10 years.

In normal times, the opportunity cost of maintaining the prohibition on cannabis in Virginia could be summed up as:

Opportunity Cost of Cannabis Prohibition = Foregone Income + Normal Cost of Enforcing Prohibition

These costs have changed. Sixty days from now when the law is finalized in Washington DC, and even more so a year from now when the system likely turns commercial, Virginia is going to see an increase in cannabis supply and transportation. Because of the stark difference between DC and Virginia law, this will add enforcement costs. These costs will be a) arrest, prosecute, and punish even more people or b) ignore those people and erode rule of law while promoting disregard for government. Now:

Opportunity Cost of Cannabis Prohibition = Foregone Income + Normal Cost of Law Enforcement + Additional Enforcement Costs

Difficult decisions, and this is a difficult decision, require serious considerations of the costs and benefits. Research suggests that marijuana has serious impacts on the development of adolescent brains. Despite lacking the addictive properties of other drugs, many people develop unhealthy lifestyles around the use of the drug. Even the staunchest legalization advocates shouldn’t be so quick to deny this, but this prohibition, like prohibitions before it, have failed.

Legal consequences create a hurdle that stop those who need help from seeking help. This won’t help those under 21 years old, but it will regulate the product, reduce crime, and hopefully create an environment where essential conversations start happening. One-third of high school seniors use the drug. Legalization will regulate the product they use (e.g. if a 17-year-old is going to drink, I’d prefer they drink regulated alcohol instead of moonshine), force their current buyers out of the market, and create an environment where the legal stakes of mature conversations are reduced.

Supporting the legalization of cannabis is not the same as wanting to smoke it or condoning those who do smoke it–even though these are both perfectly reasonable. Legalization is simply an acknowledgement that the current regime fails to achieve a majority of its goals and it’s time to try something different.

The story of cannabis legalization in the United States is just beginning. Commercial sales may never be universal, but Virginia’s strict regime won’t be sustainable as more of its neighbors legalize. The passing of Initiative 71 in Washington DC forces Virginia’s hand sooner than anyone could have anticipated. Virginia can respond by digging in its heels, or it can be pragmatic and focus on solving the problems of cannabis through alternatives to prohibition.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.

Photo by: Charlón

  1. Cannabis is the agreed upon international term and comes from botany. Marijuana is slang that comes from either Portuguese or Spanish and persists in the United States because of the “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937”. I’ll use the term cannabis in the broad context but will use marijuana in specific instances of laws and articles to avoid confusion. 
  2. It’s a fascinating issue that unfortunately breaks down perfectly into the heuristics discussed in Day #091. After studying policy in the Netherlands in 2013 and visiting Colorado this past summer, it’s abundantly clear that we need to elevate the level of debate. That prohibition is the “white man oppressing the oppressed” and legalization an “attack on American values” are inadequate ways of capturing the complexities of this issue. 
  3. It is expected to pass. Conservatives may oppose legalization, but it’s tough to go against the people, especially when the vote wasn’t even close. 
  4. Mark A.R. Kleiman wrote an Op/Ed supporting this system in Slate. It has a feel-good vibe, but the system forgoes the benefits of taxation and regulation. The Netherlands started with a similar system under the Revised Opium Act of 1976. In the 1980’s, the government stopped prosecuting dealers in venues (coffeeshops which now have DJs during all hours of operation) if the dealers had the trust of management. Today, the Netherlands earns no tax revenue from sales and can’t regulate the product. “Coffeeshops” are limited to 500 grams of product at any given time. This creates the “backdoor problem” which results in the daily and sometimes hourly delivery of illegal product. 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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