Baby Steps in Virginia

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Sorry for the late column, dear readers. I was on an airplane all yesterday celebrating my 49th birthday in an aisle seat, flying back from Richmond, Virginia. I was there to emcee and present at the 2017 Virginia Cannabis Conference, sponsored by Virginia NORML.

I’ve written before of my love for activists in the prohibition states. There are few better than Jenn-Michelle Pedini, the director of Virginia NORML. At barely five feet tall, she is a former Disney character actor, a cancer survivor and openly lesbian in a state that would’ve passed a law last year allowing businesses to discriminate against LGBT people, if not for the Democratic governor’s veto. I’d say any woman who can beat cancer and stand up to homophobes should find marijuana legalization to be the easiest battle of the three.

But that’s not always the case.

Pushing for marijuana reform in a conservative Southern state is a monumental task. To illustrate the difficulties, Virginia NORML brought out John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, for a keynote address on how the federal government under Donald Trump and possibly Jeff Sessions will impact national and state marijuana reform.

“I heard a lot of people – a lot of progressives and liberals – saying, ‘There’s no difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. They’re going to be the same thing; just another corporatist, insider hack,’” Hudak explained. “If you think that Hillary Clinton would’ve banned people from seven majority-Muslim countries yesterday if she were president, you know, you’re insane.”

Kevin Mahmalji, NORML’s National Outreach Coordinator, outlined the successes we’ve had at the state level in the most recent election, tempered by the reaction of state legislatures in Massachusetts, Maine and other states passing bills to push back deadlines for beginning their commercial cannabis cultivation and marijuana sales regulations.

“As you can see, we made a tremendous amount of progress during last year’s election,” Mahmalji demonstrated, “but due to state legislatures wanting to put up one last fight, I guess, they’re delaying the implementation. A lot of them are giving different reasons – we need more study, we need to find out more information – but it’s just stall tactics.”

A real coup for Pedini and Virginia NORML was bringing out two state delegates to speak to the audience of 50 dedicated cannabis activists on how to best lobby the legislature. First to speak was Republican Del. Glenn Davis, who explained why he’s working on a very limited CBD-oil bill just for those suffering from Crohn’s disease.

“Understand the political side,” Davis said. “If people want to kill a bill, they only have to poke one hole in it. So, the broader the bill is, the more potential for holes. So, if I were to list four diseases, and say we’re going to increase the use of cannabis oil for these four, I have to defend all four. And like I say, I’m not a medical doctor.”

Davis was followed by Democratic Del. Steve Heretick. He explained how to express the issue of marijuana law reform as one of economic realities.

“Think about the collateral consequences if, you know, if you’re not employable, you live at home with mom and dad in the basement… What are those potential costs over everybody’s lifetime?” Heretick asked.

Throughout the conference, the theme that I found recurring in talks among the activists was a divide between those who wish to move forward with decriminalization in Virginia and those who want to pursue a more piecemeal approach of improving the current cannabidiol oil law and adding more conditions to it.

It’s a delicate balance many NORML chapters in prohibition states must manage. The sponsors and donors to a NORML chapter are usually businesses and individuals who want to benefit personally and commercially from marijuana legalization. They really want to see legislation that decriminalizes or legalizes marijuana for all, or at least creates a whole plant medical marijuana program for the patients who could be helped.

But they also want to see results and the membership of the chapter gets disillusioned fighting year after year only to see nothing change. That presents the pressure to go forward with what can pass in the legislature, even if it doesn’t come close to a decent medical marijuana program, much less decrim or legalization.

The art of leadership in this position is showing how baby steps matter and its one of the hardest jobs any NORML chapter leader faces. Incrementalism is hardly sexy—“Hey, if we get the CBD oil bill to include cancer and Crohn’s, maybe next session we can add multiple sclerosis and PTSD!” is a tough rallying cry for someone facing jail in Alexandria for something that’s legal across the border in Washington D.C.

As I left Virginia, it looked like a bill to end the practice of automatically suspending driver’s licenses for minor marijuana possession may pass. Yes, marijuana will still be illegal; yes, you still get fined; yes, you still might see jail; yes, if the weed was in your car, you’ll still lose your license; yes, if it’s your second or subsequent offense, you can still be suspended; yes, if you’re juvenile, you’ll still be suspended; yes, they’ll drop the whole thing if their federal highway funds are threatened.

But if you’re an adult caught with weed on a first offense and your car is not involved, your driver’s license won’t be suspended. Like I said, baby steps.

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