Marijuana: A How To Guide For Legalization

My thoughts these days often and naturally wander to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it will have on our country and its people, our economy, and on a far more personal note, those I love. But I think it is good also to think and write of other things during this time of crisis, to, if nothing else, reaffirm that however wrenching the moment, this too shall pass and that we shall eventually come out the other side. It is in that spirit that I have decided to posit my thoughts about what, only a few short weeks ago, seemed a “burning” issue of the day — legalizing marijuana.

To my friends who consider marijuana a scourge, I respect your antipathy towards it. I for one, even in my misspent youth, have never partaken of the weed. But to simply rage against its legalization is futile. Demographics is destiny (a lesson more of my fellow Republicans need to learn), and legalization, not just decriminalization, is only a matter of time. The question then is whether you want to influence the form that legalization takes. I choose to have my voice heard, however faint. Hence I proffer this proposal.

At the outset, I emphasize that I believe that whether and to what extent to legalize marijuana should be a state issue, not a federal one. We don’t need the folks in Alabama or California telling us here in Virginia what we should do vis a vis marijuana, and we Virginians likewise should accord other states the same respect. This is in keeping with my general philosophy that the federal government should not usurp decisions more appropriately left to the states and their localities. Of course, as the current pandemic demonstrates, there are matters that demand and require a national response. But whether to light up and take a toke is not among them.

With that caveat, I recommend the following.

I exhort the General Assembly and the Governor to address the issue from a scientific, evidence-based approach. Marijuana is a drug, which although in many respects may pose less health risks than alcohol and nicotine, is at the end of the day, a drug with potential adverse health effects. We should therefore identify the  major health risks associated with cannabis and craft legislation and regulations accordingly. From my initial, albeit not exhaustive, research, I believe that the legal framework for marijuana should address two broad health risks.

The first involves age and the impact that marijuana may have on a developing brain. Studies reflect that cannabis use can alter brain structure in the developing brain and that the brain is not fully developed until age 25, with the last development involving judgment. The second issue involves the potency of the cannabis used. Today’s cannabis is exponentially more potent than that of yesteryear. When I was young, marijuana only contained about five percent of THC. Today that percentage can easily surpass 15, 20, and even 50 percent. It is weed on steroids. Health experts are beginning to sound the alarm that the habitual use of cannabis with concentrations of 10 percent or more can lead to a statistically significant increase in mental maladies, including even psychosis.

Relying on the research, I advocate the following:

  1. The legal age to purchase marijuana should be 25.
  2. Other than medical marijuana, which should be left to a physician and his or her patient, the maximum concentration of cannabis that can be purchased legally should be less than 10 percent.
  3. Possession of marijuana not legally purchased but in recreational amounts should be decriminalized with substantial civil fines attached.
  4. Criminal penalties should still attach to the sale and distribution of illegal marijuana.
  5. Legal cannabis should be taxed, much like alcohol and cigarettes.

To my mind, the above framework accomplishes several things. It recognizes that legalization is inevitable but encourages safer use of cannabis. It provides substantial incentive for cannabis to be sold legally and undermines the criminal element that now exists. Finally, it will generate revenue which can be devoted to substance abuse and health programs and services.

Do I think that my proposal is perfect? Far from it. I do not suffer from such hubris. But it does establish the foundational principle that cannabis laws and regulations should be based on science and data, and future adjustments should be made based on the science and data that evolves. Such an approach is preferable to us conservatives simply shaking our proverbial fists at the inevitable legalization of cannabis use without regard to the health risks that a more reasoned methodology could help curtail.

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