The Next “Big Tobacco” Makes Inroads Into Virginia

(As published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Richmond is no stranger to the influence of powerful lobbying groups. As the former epicenter of the worldwide tobacco industry, powerful corporations have long held considerable sway over politics in our state. Financed by multi-billion dollar sales of a harmful, addictive product, lobbyists for the tobacco industry have spent millions of dollars to oppose even the most modest regulations here and across the nation that could curb their profits — all at the expense of public health. We’ve learned painful lessons from our nation’s experience with tobacco, which is why it is so disheartening to see history repeating itself with another drug: marijuana.

This week, Lt. Gov Ralph Northam made waves when he opened the door to supporting the decriminalization of marijuana. He joins several other Virginia politicians focusing on marijuana, including Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City), Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), and Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) who have diverted valuable time and energy on risky marijuana-related proposals that will fail to meaningfully reform our criminal justice system and allow the next big tobacco industry to gain a foothold in our state.

When it comes to drug laws, science and evidence — not cheech and chong ideology — should inform our direction. Despite assertions being made by politicians supporting changes to marijuana laws, it is false to claim that marijuana users are clogging our state prisons. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, less than 1% of all state inmates were behind bars for marijuana possession only (with many of them pleading down from more serious crimes). In total, one tenth of one percent (0.1 percent) of all state prisoners were marijuana-possession offenders with no prior sentences. Other independent research shows that the actual risk of arrest for each marijuana joint smoked is about 1 arrest for every 12,000 joints.

Moreover, evidence clearly demonstrates marijuana is not harmless. In states that have already legalized the drug, there has been an increase in drugged driving crashes and youth marijuana use. According to the National Institutes of Health, marijuana — which has skyrocketed in average potency over the past decade — is addictive and harmful to the human brain, especially when used by adolescents. In fact, research shows one in every six 16 year-olds (and one in every eleven adults) who try marijuana will develop a substance use disorder. Studies also show a harmful connection between marijuana use and decreased academic potential among young people. One major study notes that teens who start smoking marijuana before age 18 have 6–8 fewer IQ points by age 38. Adding insult to injury, in states that have already legalized cannabis, the black market continues to thrive, marijuana arrests continue, and sales of alcohol continue to rise.

Decriminalizing marijuana is not a silver bullet solution to criminal justice reform in Virginia. On the contrary, it diverts attention and effort away from proven reforms we already know are effective at reducing incarceration and saving taxpayer dollars. Drug courts, which have a long and successful track record of diverting non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison remain in serious need of additional funding and support across the Commonwealth. Politicians in Virginia must also also focus their legislative energy on increasing funding for drug prevention and treatment programs for addiction, particularly in the wake of our deadly opioid epidemic. If we’re serious about reform, elected officials should address policies that encourage businesses to discourage asking questions about criminal records in job applications, thereby giving former drug offenders a fair shot at employment.

Intentionally or not, politicians in Richmond are opening the door to the full scale commercialization of yet another drug in our state. They’re taking campaign money from lobbying groups and being targeted by a growing for-profit industry that will fight every new reasonable regulation designed to reduce its consequences tooth and nail. We cannot afford to forget the painful lessons of our national experience with Big Tobacco, which for decades lied to Americans about their products and marketed an addictive, harmful drug to minority communities and young people to make money. No amount of tax revenue will ever undo the heavy price our society paid for this mistake. The proposals being bandied about in Richmond are a stepping stone in this direction. Do we really want to go down this road again?