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Pot decriminalization draws mixed reviews from police / March 08, 2017

While marijuana decriminalization may be winning converts in the political arena, law enforcement officials are far from convinced that the idea is a sound one.

Efforts to ease up on marijuana enforcement have gotten a boost at both the state and federal levels in Virginia, with three gubernatorial candidates saying they are open to the idea and 5th District Congressman Tom Garrett (R-Buckingham) announcing last week he will sponsor a bill to decriminalize pot at the federal level.

In a campaign stop Friday in Chase City, Republican candidate for governor Denver Riggleman reaffirmed his support for decriminalizing possession of small quantities of marijuana for personal use, adding that he hopes to energize the Southside Virginia economy by encouraging production of industrial hemp. Riggleman’s support comes on the heels of similar pronouncements by both Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello, each of whom has spoken favorably towards decriminalization.

Despite the apparent bipartisan interest, opinions among members of law enforcement are all over the map.

South Hill Police Chief Stuart Bowen, for one, believes that legalization of marijuana “is a discussion we need to have.” But Bowen said he is concerned that the bill introduced by Garrett — the “Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017” — does nothing more than “strike the words marijuana from the [federal] Controlled Substance Act.”

The door for federal regulation and enforcement to deter pot use remains open as long as there is nothing in the law addressing such issues as interstate commerce, Bowen explained.

Bowen added that he is a staunch advocate of the 10th Amendment and believes each state should set its own drug policies. “That which is not specified in the Constitution is left to the local government and the people there who are accountable to the public. If you don’t like the local laws, then you are free to move,” said Bowen.

Taking a less favorable view of marijuana decriminalization, Mecklenburg County Sheriff Bobby Hawkins said he opposes Garrett’s bill, although he is open to the idea of taxing and regulating the marijuana business.

“You know, I still believe that marijuana is a gateway drug, but if we are going to decriminalize it, then we need to regulate it like we do cigarettes and alcohol,” said Hawkins.

Hawkins clarified that by regulation, he meant marijuana should be taxed. And he wants the tax money set aside to fight the “opiate epidemic we are facing.” Specifically, he would like for the tax revenues to pay for treatment, counseling, education and other services to help people kick their addiction to heroin and other opiates.

“We need to realize that not every addict is a bad person. Some got addicted to opiates like hydrocodone, oxycontin, Vicodin, morphine, or Demerol after surgery,” said Hawkins. “When the doctors stopped their prescriptions, they turned to street drugs like heroin. These people may want help, but there are not a lot of resources out there for them.”

Bowen is not as convinced as Hawkins that marijuana is a gateway drug. Like Hawkins, he sees marijuana abuse and addiction as a health care issue that calls for treatment. He said, “We don’t have the same issue with gambling or alcohol, which are also addictions.”

Garrett said he introduced his bill in response to testimony by Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his Senate confirmation hearing, which raised concerns over whether the Justice Department would take a hardline stance on marijuana under the new Trum Administration.

Session testified, “The United States Congress has made the possession of marijuana in every state and the distribution of it an illegal act. So, if that’s something that is not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule. It’s not so much the Attorney General’s job to decide what laws to enforce. We should do our job and enforce laws effectively as we are able.”

In earlier comments made before his nomination to the attorney general post, Sessions said, “We need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it’s in fact a very real danger.

“[Marijuana] cannot be played with, it is not funny, it’s not something to laugh about, and trying to send that message with clarity, that good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

In announcing his bill, Garrett, a first-term Republican who succeeded Rep. Robert Hurt, couched it as a tool for economic development. “This step allows states to determine appropriate medicinal use and allows for industrial hemp growth, something that will provide a major economic boost to agricultural development in Southside Virginia. In the coming weeks, I anticipate introducing legislation aimed at growing the hemp industry in Virginia, something that is long overdue.”

Garrett’s bill, which has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, has three co-sponsors: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Virginia) and Jared Polis (D-Colorado).

Even with bipartisan support, Garrett’s bill may still be in for a tough fight. Last year the Drug Enforcement Administration rejected two petitions to “reschedule” marijuana by moving it from one category of illegal drugs to another. The petitions were filed by governors Christine Gregoire of Washington and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. They called rescheduling a modest step in the right direction, allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana and possibly opening the door for limited research.

Currently, marijuana is grouped with drugs like heroin and LSD, in a category (Schedule I) reserved for the most dangerous drugs — ones that have a high potential for abuse and no known medical use. The petitions the DEA denied asked it to move marijuana into a category with cocaine, methamphetamines, and OxyContin (Schedule II) – drugs labeled as dangerous and “potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence” but which also have certain medical uses.

Northam, the first candidate in the 2017 governor’s race to announce his support for marijuana decriminalization, said he believes pot could have some medicinal benefits. Northam, a pediatric neurosurgeon, argues that decriminalization may lead to more research on the use of marijuana to provide relief from pain, drug-resistant epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder. Northam noted the latter is of particular concern in a state with a large military and veteran population.

“I’m a physician. I like to remind people there are over 100 medicines that we routinely use to take care of our patients that come from plants, so we need to be open-minded,” said Northam.

Under decriminalization laws, states generally impose civil fines for marijuana possession, with 21 states and the District of Columbia eliminating jail time as punishment for the offense. Eight states have gone further by legalizing the possession of small quantities of marijuana for use by adults.

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Truth be told- Opiods prescribed generously by doctors is one of our biggest concerns as Pharma seeks to medicate everybody. The Law needs to review prescriptions as this is the GATEWAY drug. Small town LE are dependent upon marijuana cases for revenue. Remove it from controlled substances act and tax it.

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