Marijuana use polarizes state, University
Delegate introduces bill banning medical use; University stresses protocol, students favor legalization
The debate about legalizing marijuana divides activists and legislators across the nation. At the University, marijuana usage is low, but increasing, in keeping with national trends. As the drug remains strictly illegal in Virginia, the University Police and University Judiciary Committee continue to enforce the law. For many, marijuana remains a taboo subject as the debate progresses.
A national conversation
Both Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana use this past January for persons older than 21. In Colorado, adults older than 21 can legally grow three cannabis plants in a private, locked space, legally posses all cannabis they grow, legally carry up to one ounce of cannabis while traveling, and give up to one ounce as a gift to another citizen also more than 21 years of age.
Medical marijuana is also technically allowed in Virginia, but not actually possible due to the state’s lack of any legal medical marijuana program.
“Possession or distribution of marijuana for medical purposes is permitted,” in the commonwealth of Virginia, according to current state law, provided the user “holds a valid prescription issued by a medical doctor in the treatment of cancer or glaucoma.”
This law was created in 1979, but there has never been a medical marijuana program in practice in the commonwealth of Virginia.
The impossibility of such a program lies in the law’s terminology. Under federal law, doctors are not allowed to “prescribe” Schedule I substances, such as marijuana, only “recommend,” them. This word choice renders Virginia’s technical legalization of medical marijuana unworkable.
Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, proposed a bill at the beginning of the 2014 legislative session to repeal the 1979 legislation, removing the ostensible medical marijuana loophole and banning the substance outright.
The bill advanced to the House subcommittee for criminal offenses, where the amendment has been delayed.
Marshall, however, is strongly opposed to the use of recreational drugs on the grounds that they are unnecessary and dangerous.
“Drugs should only be taken if you’re sick,” he said.
Marshall said that if marijuana is legalized, democracy will suffer.
“Folks … will lose their political liberties because they won’t have the mental moxie to fight the tyranny that is ever growing in our society right now,” Marshall said. “If you think smoking dope is going to give you the mental capacity you need to fight off the police state, think again.”
Marshall said legalizing marijuana would exacerbate existing issues for young people, including students at the University.
“Look, you’ve got enough problems with kids drinking booze and falling off balconies,” Marshall said.
In May 2012, Charlottesville City Council passed a contested resolution calling on the Virginia General Assembly to reconsider its marijuana policy.
Council members voted 3-2 in favor of a compromise version of the resolution, urging the General Assembly to “revisit the sentencing guidelines that merit jail terms for simple possession, do away with rules that suppose intent to distribute without evidence, and give due consideration to sponsored state bills that would decriminalize, legalize, or regulate marijuana like alcohol.“
Marijuana at the University
At the University, marijuana usage remains low, but it is slowly increasing.
A 2013 health survey conducted by the University Office of Health Promotion found that 18 percent of University undergraduates use marijuana, defined as pot or hash, in the past 30 days. In the past year, 36 percent of undergraduates admitted to using the drug, the anonymous survey found.
Susan Bruce, director of the Gordie Center, said the numbers from the Health Survey were low.
“Clearly, for most students, this is not something they do on a regular basis,” Bruce said. “[Usage] was really low until about 5 years ago, and has been increasing since. Our low point was 13 percent [of students had used marijuana in the past 30 days]. We might be getting closer to 50 percent [of students have used marijuana in the past year].”
According to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, 52 percent of all people 18 to 25 used marijuana in 2012. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, which conducted the survey, did not consider that to be a statistically significant increase from previous years.
Legalization, or even decriminalization of marijuana, might increase overall consumption of the drug, Bruce said. She said the real risk of increased use lies in the combination of marijuana and alcohol.
“When people are smoking pot … it can suppress the urge to vomit,” Bruce said, adding that suppression can then lead to alcohol poisoning.
Additionally, legalization, or at least decriminalization, of marijuana would influence student perceptions, she said.
“When you start looking at legalization or decriminalization, you do see younger students perceive risk differently,” Bruce said. “They think, ‘so if it’s legal it must not be dangerous in any way,’ and the reality is anything that is altering your perceptions has some inherent risk.”
“Legal doesn’t mean safe,” Bruce said.
The University applies strict protocol when facing instances of marijuana possession.
“The possession of marijuana is illegal and our officers handle these kinds of incidents under the authority of Virginia Code,” University Police spokesperson Melissa Fielding said in an email.
“If a student is arrested and charged with marijuana possession, whether on- or off-Grounds, the member of our staff who is the ‘dean on call’ will reach out to the student to schedule a meeting,” Dean of Students Allen Groves said in an email.
In the case of first-year students, the area coordinator for the student’s Housing and Residential Life unit may take the meeting, instead of the dean on call, Groves said.
“All cases involving an arrest for marijuana possession are referred to the University Judiciary Committee for a hearing and potential sanction,” Groves said.
David Ensey, a fourth year Engineering student and chair of the University Judiciary Committee, said in an email that the UJC complies with University standards when dealing with cases involving marijuana.
“Use of marijuana and other illegal drugs is prohibited by the Record, as well as by law,” Ensey said. “The UJC investigates and adjudicates marijuana related complaints that it receives under standards 6 and 10 of the UVA Standards of Conduct.”
The UPD encountered seven incidents of marijuana possession for the months of December and January. All seven encounters resulted in arrest.
Elizabeth Minneman, a third-year in the College and former chairman of the College Republicans, said she supports marijuana legalization.
“I believe individuals should be able to make decisions for themselves regarding marijuana use rather than being told what to do by the government,” she said. “At the very least, I believe Virginia needs to decriminalize marijuana.”
Caroline Whittinghill, a third-year College student and chair of Students for Sensible Drug Policy said there exists what she called “a hole in the dialogue [at U.Va.] regarding drugs.”
“Legalization would open up the dialogue, and provide more opportunities for education and safety,” Whittinghall said.
Current government education efforts are not well respected, she added.
“We resent being talked down to,” Whittinghill said. “Government anti-drugs efforts have very little credibility with our demographic because they haven’t been telling us the whole story.”
“The War on Drugs is ineffective,” said University Democrats President Kat Bailey, a third-year in the College.“When it comes to combating drugs, the focus should be on rehabilitation, not punishment.”
Bailey said she believes legalization or decriminalization would not have much effect on the University community.
“Legalizing marijuana would just make marijuana use by U.Va. students more visible, as students would no longer have to keep it somewhat hidden,” she said.
Not all students, however, take such a positive view of marijuana usage.
“Making marijuana legal is sending the wrong message to America’s youth. Weed is not harmless,” said Margaret Lowe, a second-year in the College and member of the Alcohol Drug Abuse Prevention team.
“Many students believe that weed is safer than cigarettes, but in fact, smoking 3-4 joints per day is as damaging at 15-20 cigarettes per day,” Lowe said.
Though the debate has ended in Colorado and Washington in favor of total legalization, the debate in Virginia and at the University may well continue for years to come.