Father who lost son to heroin addiction weighs in on marijuana legalization

Posted at 12:00 AM, Apr 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-01 17:23:19-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Governor Ralph Northam's announcement Wednesday, that simple possession of marijuana could be legal in the state by July, sparked conversation across the Commonwealth -- many with opposing views on the decision.

A Virginia Commonwealth University professor who said he lost his son to addiction claimed he isn't opposed to the legalization of marijuana as long as there are strict regulations in place to protect youth.

"I speak for all the parents and fathers and mothers like me who went through the journey, life is never the same after that," said Dr. Omar Abubaker.

In 2014, after 10 months in recovery, Abubaker said his 21-year-old son, Adam, overdosed on heroin -- an addiction Abubaker believed started with alcohol.

"He went from prescription medication to heroin probably less than six months, and from heroin to death less than a year," Abubaker said.

Now, the VCU medical professor said he's made it his mission to study addiction and spread awareness. But he believed marijuana was less addictive than some legal drugs in the state.

"It has medical uses, medical benefits, and if it’s regulated. It’s okay," Abubaker said.

John Shinholser, Co-Founder and President of the McShin Foundation, works with recovering addicts. He saw Wednesday's announcement to legalize marijuana as a step in the right direction, reversing an unjust era in our history.

"They use those laws as a cudgel for people who are on probation or parole," said Shinholser. "I’ve seen thousands of kids that were well into their recovery, they’re doing great, and they get violated for little simple stuff like marijuana."

Shinholser believed lawmakers next priority should be doing away with minimum sentences.

"Those prosecutors and judges are capable of, you know, doling out sentences. They don't need their hands tied with these minimum sentencing guidelines. And a lot of these marijuana laws are tied into minimum sentencing when people get violated on probation parole. People don't realize that," Shinholser said. "They should do away with those guidelines. That’s done as much damages to communities of color than any other law out there."

In the meantime, Executive Vice President of the Virginia-based Nonprofit Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), Luke Niforatos, had a different take on the announcement.

"This is a very misguided push by Governor Northam," said Niforatos.

He believed marijuana should remain decriminalized, but warned that fast-tracking the drug's legalization for commercial use could lead to unintended consequences.

"You look at states like mine, Colorado, we've had an industry for over seven years, and we're seeing huge increases in youth use. Kids under the age of 15 increase their use of marijuana by over 12% just over the last two years," Niforatos said. "We've seen a huge increase in hospitalizations, accidental exposures to marijuana, and a more than doubling of marijuana impaired driving deaths on the road for marijuana impaired drivers."

Beyond that, Niforatos warned that by legalizing the drug, the state could be opening the door for a larger industry benefiting off people's addictions.

"Virginia needs time to prepare for this and so the idea of rushing this only benefits those who are trying to make a profit. It doesn’t benefit families, kids, people who are more vulnerable," Niforatos said. This industry is following a very similar playbook to what we saw with big tobacco, alcohol, payday loan stores. We all know where those stores go. And they target -- blatantly target -- communities of color and other vulnerable populations as well. The industry, the marijuana industry is no different."

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