Pro-marijuana advocates applauded Virginia legalizing recreational pot, but critics say that the further decriminalization of cannabis could worsen the U.S. drug crisis.
Virginia last week became the first Southern state to enact legislation that allows adults 21 years and older to possess and grow a limited supply of the drug starting July 1, adding to the list of states that have legalized recreational cannabis.
Jenn Michelle Pedini, development director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) who helped draft Virginia’s legislation, said the law is an “incredible victory for justice and equity” in the state.
“Legalization is the policy that is ultimately going to bring an end to the thousands of low-level cannabis infractions that occur every year in Virginia and will end a discriminatory practice that historically has targeted Virginians who are young, poor and people of color,” the NORML official said.
This year, New Jersey, Virginia and New York have legalized marijuana, meaning that more than 40% of Americans now reside in jurisdictions where marijuana is legal under state law, according to the NORML official.
Recreational pot is now legal in one-third of the states: Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, Colorado, Alaska, Illinois, Michigan, Maine, Vermont, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Virginia and New York. The District of Columbia and the territory of Guam also have legalized recreational marijuana.
However, cannabis remains banned by the federal government as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Other drugs under this classification include heroin, LSD, Ecstasy, methaqualone and peyote.
Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said that “the grand promises of social justice and equity” in the legalization movement have yet to be seen, noting that Illinois’ law “has so far dramatically failed to deliver on its promise to ‘set the standard’ on creating a socially equitable industry.”
“Instead, marijuana storefronts are disproportionately located in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, which historically suffer from issues of substance use and lack the resources to adequately deal with substance misuse and predatory marketing,” Mr. Sabet said.
He also noted that several states failed to pass bills to legalize marijuana this year, including New Hampshire, Maryland, Wyoming and Hawaii.
“I think what concerns organizations like ours the most, anybody working in prevention and treatment or even recovery, is the increase in access and availability of the products and also even the removal of the criminal justice system,” said Amy Ronshausen, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation. “Sometimes that link with the criminal justice system is the only opportunity that some people have to get access to treatment.”
Ms. Ronshausen said her group supports alternatives to incarceration such as a depenalization process that still involves the criminal justice system but gives users access to treatment or other basic needs instead of sending them to jail.
There are also major concerns over the commercialization of marijuana and having something similar to Big Tobacco or Big Alcohol, she said.
“It just makes sense that if you’re going to legalize another addictive substance and put it on the market, more people are going to use it. Then you’re going to see more of the societal outcomes we don’t want to see,” she said.
More impaired driving is a likely outcome, critics say.
“Marijuana is a psychoactive substance just like alcohol is,” said Paul Larkin Jr., a legal research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. “Cannabis impairs driving. There is universal agreement that one of the adverse effects of cannabis is a delay in judgment You cannot drive safely if a psychoactive substance whether it’s THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, or ethanol, the psychoactive ingredient in all forms in alcohol, has impaired your ability to respond to emergency situations.”
Mr. Larkin said is not opposed to marijuana legalization but added that lawmakers should pass legislation to address problematic outcomes from the drug’s decriminalization.