Republican’s Effort to Decriminalize Marijuana Fails, Again

January 31st, 2011 by Kim Lenz

RICHMOND – Advocates for the decriminalization of marijuana are disappointed in a legislative panel’s decision to kill a bill that would have shifted simple possession from a criminal conviction to a civil penalty.

House Bill 1443, sponsored by Delegate Harvey Morgan, R-Gloucester, sought to change the current punishment for simple marijuana possession – a $500 fine and a maximum of 30 days in jail – to a civil penalty carrying the fine only.

A subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee recommended that the bill be “passed by indefinitely,” essentially killing it for this legislative session.

Who is Harvey Morgan?

He’s 80 years old. He’s a Republican. He’s served in the Virginia House of Delegates for 32 years and often wears a bow tie.

So how did Harvey Morgan become the darling of magazines like Weed Watch and websites such as CannabisNews.com, where one reader posted a 220-word message that thanked the Northern Neck legislator five times?

By introducing legislation to decriminalize marijuana possession in Virginia.

That cause may seem incongruous for its sponsor. But Morgan says he’ll keep pushing the idea.

“I’m a pharmacist. I’m not a young person. I’m considered relatively conservative, and I’m a Republican,” Morgan said. “I think if anybody can introduce a bill like that, it ought to be somebody in my category.”

Most legislators are too intimidated to support decriminalizing marijuana, he said. For the past two years, Morgan has sponsored bills to make simple marijuana possession a civil violation punishable by a $500 fine. Currently, it’s a crime that carries a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail. Moreover, the charge goes on the offender’s permanent record and can be a barrier to employment in teaching, health care and other professions.

“It is insane for someone to be punished for the rest of his life for a mistake he made as a teenager,” Morgan said.

He said decriminalization also would save the state on law enforcement costs. About 20,000 Virginians are arrested annually for marijuana possession, according to the group DrugScience.org.

Despite the attention he’s received for his efforts, Morgan is careful to point out that he is not an advocate of marijuana use.

“I’ve never used it,” he said. “I’m not seeking legalization, although many people who support my bill would like to see it legalized and taxed to be a source of revenue, as opposed to a huge expense, as it is now.”

Morgan experienced some trepidation about introducing the bills, but chose to stick to his convictions.

“I thought it was the right thing to do, and I still think so,” he said.

-Jennie Lynn Price

“It’s not a defeat or a loss,” said Dee Duffy, executive director of the Virginia branch of the National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Anytime we can get up and testify, it’s never a loss or a defeat.”

Her organization was part of a lobbying effort that encouraged supporters to attend the subcommittee’s Jan. 17 hearing. For Duffy, the hearing was an unpleasant reminder of last year, when the same criminal-law subcommittee killed Morgan’s 2010 bill decriminalizing marijuana.

“I think they knew exactly what they were doing before the committee even convened,” Duffy said. “They had no intention of passing it.”

For now, Duffy plans to work to mobilize voters for the upcoming House of Delegates election cycle.

“If you want to change the law,” she said, “you’ve got to change the lawmakers.”

Supporters of Morgan’s legislation want to see the criminal conviction done away with because of its effect on an offender’s permanent record. A drug charge can be a barrier to employment in many fields and can prevent students from receiving federal aid. The mere record of an arrest can be enough to cause problems.

“Punishments for possession of marijuana are far more dangerous than the drug itself. The policy ruins lives,” said Devon Tackels, president of the Virginia Commonwealth University chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

“We’ve got people who are going to become doctors, lawyers or teachers, and they’re seeing their futures slowly slip away based on one mistake,” Tackels said. “It’s really sad that we do that to people.”

His organization participated in lobbying efforts to support Morgan’s bill. Tackels attended the subcommittee hearing with several other SSDP members.

“It really hurt, after all the work we put in, to see the committee members – it was like the whole thing happened and they weren’t paying attention,” Tackels said.

Brooke Napier, SSDP policy specialist, shared that impression.

“They didn’t seem to take the issue very seriously,” she said.

Tackels said he would like to see more understanding and awareness of the issue from the elected representatives making the decision.

“The committee didn’t show the empathy I would have liked to have seen from somebody in a position of legislation power,” he said. “They just really didn’t seem to get it.”

Opponents of marijuana use believe the drug should remain illegal because it is dangerous. They say marijuana causes short-term memory loss and has mood-altering effects. On its website, the Foundation for a Drug-Free World lists anxiety, lowered reaction time and a reduced resistance to common illnesses as possible side effects of marijuana use.

Officials with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education echo those concerns. D.A.R.E. is a program led by police officers that teaches children how to resist peer pressure and live productive drug- and violence-free lives.

In an e-mail interview, Gene Ayers, the coordinator for D.A.R.E. in Virginia, said, “I realize there is a good deal of money being poured into the decriminalization of marijuana, but I think this would create many more problems than it could ever solve.”

HB 1443 would not legalize marijuana. Rather, it “changes the current $500 criminal fine for simple marijuana possession to a $500 civil penalty, eliminates the 30-day jail sentence, and eliminates the criminal conviction record that would follow a conviction for simple possession,” according to the description by the Legislative Information Service, the General Assembly’s record-keeping system.

“The bill changes none of the penalties for manufacture or distribution of marijuana. The bill continues to require forfeiture of the driver’s license and drug screening and education for any minor found to have committed the violation of possession of marijuana and maintains all existing sanctions for all criminal violations involving marijuana.”

The Courts of Justice subcommittee agreed by voice vote to shelve the bill.

The bill may be done for this legislative session, but Napier sees a silver lining.
“I went away from this feeling disappointed in the representatives,” she said. “And it made me want to mobilize and fight harder.”

15 Responses to Republican’s Effort to Decriminalize Marijuana Fails, Again

  1. Anonymous

    January 31, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    I hope Delegate Harvey Morgan, R-Gloucester, tries again! I agree with him wholeheartedly.

  2. Anonymous

    January 31, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    😥

  3. Anonymous

    January 31, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    🙁 sucks, but at least he keeps trying!

  4. Anonymous

    January 31, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    A free-thinking (what used to be called liberal) Republican! Who knew, I thought the far right had euthanized them all! Go Harvey!

  5. Anonymous

    January 31, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    “We’ve got people who are going to become doctors, lawyers or teachers, and they’re seeing their futures slowly slip away based on one mistake”.

    If you consider a mistake to be a choice based on poor judgement, then they probably shouldn’t be lawyers, doctors, or teachers.
    It’s kind of a selecting-out process that will tend to eliminate those unfit for those professions.

    This behavior also shows that they haven’t learned to obey the law, something they should have learned long before they had the wherewithal to smoke marijuana.

  6. Anonymous

    February 1, 2011 at 2:25 am

    Marijuana is the safest drug with actual benefits for the user as opposed to alcohol which is dangerous, causes addiction, birth defects, and affects literally every organ in the body. Groups are organizing all over the country to speak their minds on reforming pot laws. I drew up a very cool poster for the cause which you can check out on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/01/vote-teapot-2011.html Drop in and let me know what you think!

  7. Anonymous

    February 1, 2011 at 9:33 am

    We all have our victories and defeats as regards fear, but most of us strive not to let fear rule our hearts or our choices. Being free means being free to live and love as if death had no power over us. It is our ethical and moral duty to expose blind hate and ignorance by shining eternal light and love, sending fear and hatred fleeing back to the shadows from whence it came.

    We explore outer space with various forms of space craft, but many choose to explore inner space via nature’s abundant chemistry – an infinite journey into the heart of God. Whatever, we are here to explore this glorious universe. The Prohibitionist’s brand of hateful, choking pseudo-Conservatism is the antithesis of all that. Like a lion who cannot grasp that he can do more than walk in a circle the size of the cage he’s been freed from, the prohibitionist is incapable of exploration beyond the boundaries of his own fear, prejudice and loathing. We are all free to choose how we walk our own path, but when we choose to go beyond this by supporting drug-war demagoguery, to the point of even threatening others with imprisonment and physical violence, we loose the right to expect any form of respect from the once free and prosperous society that we are helping to totally destroy.

    We’re about to lose all semblance of that once ordered, prosperous and safe society. Myself, along with many others, have been debating prohibitionists on this for many years. We have shown what destruction prohibition has wrought on all the civil institutions of this once great nation, -we’ve always provided facts and statistics – they have countered with either lies, personal abuse or even serious threats of violence.

    Ending the insanity of drug prohibition by legalized regulation, respecting the rights of the responsible users and focusing on addiction as a sickness, like we do with alcohol and tobacco, will save the U.S. economy and countless lives and livelihoods. Prohibition continues unabated for shameful political reasons. It cannot, and never will, reduce drug use or addiction.

  8. Anonymous

    February 1, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    They should just legalize all drugs and put a tax on them. Just pass one law that says if you commit a crime trying to support your habit or while undet the influence you should get the death penalty. That way you can have your recreational users. If more companies and local governments would use drug tests before hiring their personel they could easily fix the problem. Oh you want to teach our kids but your a stoner NO thanks go get a job digging a ditch if you can.

  9. Anonymous

    February 1, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    Pseudo-conservative, that’s a great phrase for the prohibitionists. Prohibition is nothing but a means to implement tyranny and a police state.

    Delegate Morgan is a common sense hero and a pricipled man. I too am getting up there in years – I didn’t use marijuana in my 20s and 30s or most of my 40s. I am a conservative Constitutionalist Republican, I have been a veteran, a military spouse, a mother. I was also sick and overburdened for many years – need to heal and recover now, and the pharmaceuticals are terrible for my very-sensitive neurology. Prompted by articles in Scientific American and really, all over the place now – reports from friends – I finally checked into it for myself, and happily report that YES marijuana has medicinal uses. I would like to be able to use it in my home state. People have to be allowed the liberty to use God’s garden in the way they see fit, just as you would keep echinacea or dandelion root – marijuana is a long way from the dangerous, toxic, addictive poisons marketed by the tobacco, alcohol, and pharmaceutical industry. It’s a plant, it is not a synthesized concentrated drug. I have absolutely no problem with people using it recreationally, either. IMO it’s harmless, and people self-limit their use effectively.

  10. Anonymous

    February 1, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    I believe the worst part of this article is the headline itself. “Republican’s efforts ” is misleading and totally out of context. But it serves your purpose in pitting one political party against another rather than the actual rivalry between non-users and users. Get a grip!

  11. Anonymous

    February 1, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    Pay attention to the wording:

    “possible side effects of marijuana use”

    …”possible”?

    The truth is becoming very well known. Pharmaceuticals are FAR more dangerous than cannabis, and likely FAR less useful.

    …but it IS one of the wealthiest lobbies in politics.

    Laws were never meant to provide economic advantage to niche markets through prohibition of their economic competition.

    The Prohibition of Cannabis is Tyranny.

  12. Anonymous

    February 1, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    @Barrey S. Camp

    Reporters don’t usually write the headlines…the paper often does. Take it up with them.

  13. Anonymous

    February 1, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    Unfortunate. In all my years, I have saw so many more problems with alcohol rather than marijuana.

    I would much rather my chilren use marijuana than alcohol. But of course anything can be used to excess, food, computers, games, anything.

    I have used it on occasion for medicinal purposes and recreational. I have a professional job, own a home and a car, volunteer and donate to charity.

    To those who appose the use of this glorious god given herbal rememdy, please do so research. A great movie and book that will educate you about botany is the “The Botany of Desire”.

    It will show you the chemistry behind marijuana. I feel confident once you educate yourself you will understand why it is absurd that marijuana is illegal.

  14. Anonymous

    February 1, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    [quote name=”Barrey S. Camp”]I believe the worst part of this article is the headline itself. “Republican’s efforts ” is misleading and totally out of context. But it serves your purpose in pitting one political party against another rather than the actual rivalry between non-users and users. Get a grip![/quote]

    No, it’s actually factual. One truly conservative liberty-minded Republican proposed this legislation, and will do so again – other Republicans opposed the bill, hopefully they will get thrown out of office – Gilbert, Bell, and possibly Albo (unless he changes his position) – they have all shown themselves to be “pseudo conservatives” and uninterested in the concept of liberty – they need to be replaced next election.

  15. Anonymous

    August 6, 2011 at 2:38 am

    I agree #6. alchohol is a far more dangerous “drug”. isnt a drug considerd a mind altering substance? No one has a problem with taxes on that. I hope virginia will realize the revenue they could recieve just by perscribing a safe medicine for its patients.

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