While much of the media attention surrounding marijuana reform in Virginia has been focused on decriminalization this past year, it is another facet of the movement that appears most poised for a major legislative advance this session of the General Assembly:
“The biggest hope for gains is on the healthcare front,” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML. “Senator Dunnavant and Delegate Cline’s Joint Commission on Health Care bills would expand Virginia’s medical cannabis program so that all patients will have access.”
Senate Bill 726 is a “doctor’s decide” bill, meaning that physicians in the Commonwealth will be able to recommend the use of cannabidiol oil or THC-A oil to treat or alleviate the symptoms of any diagnosed condition or disease determined by the practitioner to benefit from such use.
“This would expand patient access to extraction-based cannabis medicines that will meet the need of Virginia’s most critically ill patients — as well as those suffering from everyday conditions like arthritis,” said Pedini.
This bill is more likely to be successful than efforts in the past because it was originated through the committee process, and has been shepherded by a Republican doctor, Senator Siobhan Dunnavant.
“States that have medical cannabis laws see a 25 percent reduction in opiate overdose deaths,” Sen. Dunnavant wrote in a blog she posted about the bill on her website. “We are all aware of the opiate crisis we are combating at the state and national level. Evidence shows that the anti-inflammatory properties of THC a oil help reduce chronic pain.”
Last year, Gov. McAuliffe signed into law legislation to allow the licensing of five pharmaceutical processors — one per health service area in the state — which will produce medical cannabis oils.
“These facilities will look more like a CVS than a Colorado dispensary,” said Pedini.
SB 726’s companion bill in the House, HB 1251, unanimously passed through subcommittee today, clearing what might have been its most substantial hurdle on its path to being law.
And there is increasing evidence that marijuana is actually a “step down” drug that could prove a major force in combating the Commonwealth’s opioid epidemic. Medical cannabis legalization leads to a substantial drop in opioid-related hospital visits, reported the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California San Diego.
Advocates for marijuana decriminalization were let down when Senate Majority leader Tommy Norment — who previously had voiced support for decriminalization — instead introduced an expungement bill.
“We’re still examining the ultimate impact of this legislation,” said Pedini. “The way it looks right now, this bill would not make the expungement process affordable for the majority of defendants.”
The public sentiment on the issue is clear: the Commonwealth wants marijuana reform. Recently the Virginia Crime Commission solicited citizen feedback on the issue. Staff received over 5,665 written comments, of which 3,743 supported decriminalization and 107 did not.
The racial disparity in marijuana-related arrests in Virginia is alarming. “Males, young adults, and Blacks are over-represented in the total number of arrests for possession as compared to their overall general population in Virginia,” cited the nonpartisan Crime Commission report. While whites and blacks use marijuana at similar rates, in Virginia blacks are charged at a rate of over 3-to-1. In some parts of Virginia, that ratio is 11-to-1.
All marijuana-related bills pass through the Courts of Justice Committees. From there they would head to the House and Senate for votes, and then to the desk of newly inaugurated Gov. Ralph Northam, who has previously stated his support for doctor-recommended medical cannabis.
“Marijuana decriminalization is a racial justice issue,” Dr. Northam has stated.
During the 2018 General Assembly session — which runs from January 10 to March 10 — legislators will vote on thousands of bills. They rely on feedback from constituents to determine their votes.
“If people want to support this, use the Virginia NORML email action alert, and pick up the phone and call your elected officials,” said Pedini.
Cover Photo by Harvard Health