RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said Monday he wanted a responsible approach to legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in Virginia.
He said the plan would have to promote racial equity, protect children, and protect the environment.
Once reluctant to support such legislation, the governor pointed out two government studies that found there is a safe path to legalize the drug that will generate revenue for the state and address racial disparities in criminal law enforcement.
Dr. Omar Abubaker, a VCU medical professor who lost his 21-year-old son to prescription drugs and heroin, said he understands the emotional component for families battling addiction but also said he saw potential benefits of regulating the drug and studying its impact on the community.
“Cigarettes, alcohol, and prescription drugs are a much more definitive way to drugs or hard drugs than marijuana,” Abubaker said.
However, Abubaker said like alcohol, the industry should be strictly regulated and off-limits to youth.
“The only thing I would say is hopefully we’ll have strict regulations on where it’s sold and who sells it,” Abubaker said. “What little we know is that it does have a significant impact on young people.”
When it comes to the racial component, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that while Black and white Virginians use marijuana at similar rates, Black Virginians are 3.5 times more likely to face arrest.
John Shinholser, the founder of The McShin Foundation, said he believed the disparity was even higher based on the number of inmates he has visited as part of his foundation’s recovery program.
He said minority populations are far more likely to face harsh penalties for drug use.
He also said he saw less abuse among marijuana users, than users of other drugs.
“They’re saying a 3 to 1 racial disparity, right now I think it’s higher than that,” Shinholser said. “What I’ve seen since I started this recovery organization, is the people who smoke pot do less damage to themselves and the community than the ones who do opioids, benzos (Benzodiazepines) and alcohol.”
Opponents to the legalization of marijuana, including Virginia-based Smart Approaches to Marijuana, argued legalization of the drug could result in the creation of an addiction-for-profit industry that targets minorities and young people. The group said legislators should stop at decriminalizing the drug.
Several opponents also argue that marijuana is a gateway drug that opens the door to harsher drug use.
“That was our fear back in the day,” Debbie Rosenbaum said.
Debbie and Ed Rosenbaum said they had a change of heart over the legalization of marijuana after watching their son battle alcoholism as a young adult.
“I feel this is a step in the right direction and I feel like it’s just a matter of time before we all decide this is the lesser (drug). It’s all about harm reduction I think,” Debbie said.
“For marijuana to be a criminal offense the same as heroin possession or some other illegal drugs, that just doesn’t make sense,” Ed Rosenbaum added. “It’s less harmful than any of these other major drugs that we experience in our community.”