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Opinion

Overdue break from the past

SoVaNow.com / April 14, 2021
Honest question, hoping that readers will weigh in with honest answers: Which do you think is worse, legalized gambling or legalized marijuana? Each has its downsides, that much cannot be denied, but one has been an accepted part of American life for generations and one is only now emerging from the recesses of the black market. If gambling were made illegal, do you think a surge of criminality would result?

These thoughts come to mind listening to the howls of outrage over passage of a marijuana legalization bill, signed by Gov. Ralph Northam this week, by the Democratically controlled General Assembly. With a stroke of the governor’s pen Virginia becomes the first state in the South to bring recreational pot use out from the shadows. (If you’re of a certain demographic, with a so-called respectable background working in your favor, periodic pot use was barely ever in the shadows.) For the opposing side of this argument, you can read the constituent column at right by Del. Tommy Wright, who joined his Republican colleagues in voting against the legislation. The party-line vote in the House of Delegates was 53-44. In the state Senate, Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax broke a 20-20 tie to ensure passage in the upper chamber. Clarksville Sen. Frank Ruff, like Wright, voted no.

I have no particular point to make in response to a common Republican criticism of the bill — that it was too long and too complex to digest in the time allotted for consideration — except to note this kind of thing happens all the time, and Wright and Ruff have surely been past offenders on sundry other bills. All legislatures, Virginia’s General Assembly most assuredly among them, would grind to a halt if not for the expertise of veteran staff who can explain what legislation means to sometimes clueless legislators. (Lobbyists fulfill a similar educational function, their obvious self-interests aside.) In fairness to lawmakers, not even the most quick-witted and sagacious of solons could keep up with every detail of the bills that flood the zone each year at the General Assembly. True, pot legalization is a very big deal, deserving of careful study. But these complaints about the process leading up to Virginia’s newest landmark law strike me as pretty weak tea.

And what of the rest? Wright’s column is a decent example of the genre: the never-ending, unblinking, unthinking defense of American’s failed War on Drugs. This is truly what the anti-legalization crowd is calling for: more of the same fruitless approach as before. I would never deny that marijuana usage can lead to bad outcomes — I’ve seen it happen to people I know — but the idea that someone should be subject to serving jail time for essentially minor transgressions is ridiculous. This is a fact that the criminal justice system, as it normally operates, conceded long ago — so why should we keep up the pretense that pot use must be against the law and subject to criminal sanction?

Image the havoc that would ensue if we criminalized gambling, or heaven forbid, alcohol use, which leads to lots of trouble of its own for lots of people. (You don’t have to imagine what could happen if we criminalized booze; just rewatch “The Untouchables,” which does a entertaining job of capturing the social perversions of the Prohibition era.) It’s long past time that we applied common sense, rather than reflexive thinking to the topic of Reefer Madness; one of the core tenets of common sense is that most things, in moderation, really aren’t all that bad. From there, it would help to treat excessive marijuana usage and addiction as a public health concern rather than a possible ticket to jail. Lastly, where recreational or medicinal pot does endanger others — think the stoned driver swerving down the highway — criminal penalties are indeed appropriate. I haven’t seen anything in Virginia’s pending regime of legalized pot that runs counter to any of these tenets.

It’s more than a little curious that pot legalization has become such a partisan issue in Virginia. One would think the libertarian redoubts of the Republican Party would have something to say about the wisdom of separating marijuana use from the stigma of the law. Freedom for me (you?) should be the priority as long as no one else is harmed, right? You would think this argument would have entered the debate at some point from the conservative side of the Assembly aisle. Looking at the history of drug legalization efforts, one can easily find examples of libertarian-minded Republicans taking up the mantle of reform. Could it be, at the current moment, that pot legalization runs afoul of another, higher priority Republican project —to disenfranchise as many voters as they can lay their hands on? New York Congressman Mondaire Jones has written a fine op-ed for The Washington Post this week on what would appear to be an unrelated subject —the recent wave of Republican-backed legislation to make voting harder in swing states across the U.S. — that has ensued in the wake of Donald Trump’s Big Lies about election fraud in the 2020 race which, of course, Trump lost. This passage by Jones caught my eye, in which he discusses the historical legacy of white supremacist rule in the aftermath of the Civil War:

In 1870, during Reconstruction, Congress adopted the 15th Amendment, outlawed disenfranchisement on the basis of race and created the Justice Department in part to empower Black voters.

But white supremacists soon got around that. If they couldn’t disenfranchise on the basis of race, they would disenfranchise people like me using proxies for race.

They required voters to pass arbitrary “literacy tests,” then denied Black citizens access to education. They required voters to pay poll taxes, then plundered Black communities. They barred people convicted of crimes from voting, then invented new crimes and found Black people guilty of them. And they killed whomever they had to in order to overthrow multiracial state governments.

“They ... invented new crimes and found Black people guilty of them.” Look, from a certain perspective, this is far from an adequate reckoning of the matter: white people have done time for marijuana possession, too. But from a distance, Jones’ point is plainly valid: the disparity of treatment towards casual marijuana use among Americans of different races and social status is so enormous, and so blatantly unfair, that one must be blind not to see the difference. And yes, pot convictions can be and are used to prevent people from voting. As one step among many to achieve a more equitable society, legalization is long overdue.

Where does one draw the line on illicit drugs? That really is the question, isn’t it? The argument that pot use is really no more harmful that alcohol consumption is a reasonable debate to have, but it’s tough to extend it to more powerful substances like heroin or cocaine. Just because the public demands it and powerful economic interests would stand to benefit from it, should legal crack cocaine and opioids become the norm? I’ll continue to say “no” to that. But consider the two useful examples of crack and opioids, both drugs that have ruined countless lives and each left a staggering toll of damage. Is is any accident that these scourges have inspired such different approaches in policy? The relatively understanding treatment of opioid addiction has been far more productive than the War on Crack, all things considered. We can continue to deal with the effects of drug abuse without relying on the heavy hammer of the court system to resolve every case. Legalization of marijuana — making it part of an open market, rather than subjecting it to the black market — enables a well-known approach for controlling drug use, one that true conservatives ought to appreciate. Want to create less of something? Tax the bejeezus out of it.

Along with allowing individuals to legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana, and permitting people to grow up to four plants at home for personal use, Virginia’s new law sets forth a three-year timetable for establishing a commercial market for marijuana sales and consumption. Now that promises to be interesting. There’s lots to say on this score, too much for the space that remains today, but don’t be too surprised if Southside Virginia, our socially conservative stronghold, emerges as a major player in this emerging market. (Speaking of players, I can just see the commercials starring Snoop Dogg as he pitches pot products while standing in what used to be a Southside hemp field.) Fanciful notion, or just a fancy free one? Let’s leave that question aside for now. Suffice it to say, I never would have imagined a decade ago that the City of Danville, a veritable stone’s throw away, would be on the cusp of becoming Virginia’s casino gambling capital. And yet ....

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