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‘Compassionate and sensible drug policy’

At a recent news conference at the State Capitol in Richmond, 98th District Delegate Harvey B. Morgan (R-Gloucester) discussed legislation he is sponsoring regarding the medicinal use of marijuana and the criminal penalties for marijuana possession.

House Bill 1134 would change the punishment for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana from a criminal offense to a civil one carrying a $500 fine. “This is a rational approach to drug policy that also happens to be fiscally responsible.”—Delegate Morgan

Under existing Virginia law, physicians, pharmacists and patients are protected from legal action if medical marijuana is being used in the treatment of cancer or glaucoma. House Bill 1136 would end the limitation to those two conditions, permitting the use of medicinal marijuana for the treatment of other conditions.

Morgan said marijuana has been demonstrated to be effective in treating disorders other than cancer and glaucoma including, but not limited to, wasting caused by HIV, movement disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, and chronic pain. Marijuana can be helpful to some patients who are unresponsive to traditional treatments, he added.

“As a pharmacist, I understand that medications have benefits and risks,” noted Morgan. “We know that marijuana may be appropriate and effective in certain patients with diseases other than cancer and glaucoma. It would be wrong to continue the current restriction to only two afflictions when we know it can be effective in others. We trust physicians with our health care; why not trust them to determine appropriate therapy?”

Morgan said constituents, as well as people throughout Virginia, have come forward with stories about how medicinal marijuana helped when other medications failed, from treating paralysis to providing palliative care, marijuana has positively affected hundreds of patients.

“Certainly, medical marijuana is not the answer for every patient. This bill simply allows for one—and only one—additional treatment option for patients, one administered under a physician’s close supervision,” said Morgan.

Civil offense

Adding to his proposed legislation prohibiting the criminal prosecution of patients and medical professionals regarding the medicinal use of marijuana for conditions in addition to cancer and glaucoma, Delegate Morgan has introduced House Bill 1134. That legislation would change the punishment for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana from a criminal offense to a civil one carrying a $500 fine.

Change could save as much as $75 million annually in costs associated with law enforcement and criminal justice. —Jon B. Gettman, Ph.D. of Shenandoah University

Under existing Virginia law, possession of less than one ounce of marijuana carries a potential jail sentence, fines, and the loss of eligibility for various professional licenses, ranging from nail technicians to teachers.

“The Commonwealth continues to punish people for mistakes made decades ago,” Morgan said. “We need to move to a more honest, reasoned, compassionate, and sensible drug policy, and this bill does that.

“In 2007, nearly 18,000 people were arrested in Virginia for simple possession of marijuana. This places a tremendous burden on law enforcement, prisons and the judicial system. In these times of economic hardship, we need to closely examine how our tax dollars are spent. When you consider that research indicates that variations in penalties—including jail time—have no discernible effect on the prevalence or frequency of marijuana use, making simple possession a civil rather than a criminal offense makes sense.”

According to Jon B. Gettman, Ph.D. of Shenandoah University, the financial savings for making the change Morgan is proposing would save the Commonwealth as much as $75 million annually in costs associated with law enforcement and criminal justice.

“Even without the current budget gap, this legislation is the right thing to do,” declared Morgan. “That gap does provide a further compelling reason. This is a rational approach to drug policy that also happens to be fiscally responsible.”

Delegate Harvey B. Morgan was first elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1979. He represents the 98th District, which is comprised of Essex, Gloucester, Mathews and Middlesex counties, as well as portions of King and Queen and King William counties. He is the chairman of the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee.

posted 01.26.2010

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