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Marijuana Decriminalization Hangs Over Virginia Governor's Race

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Candice Rader is a 66-year-old retiree who grew up in a conservative home, voted for Donald Trump and watched her father suffer as a terminal cancer patient in the late 1970s before he died at age 53.

Even though a friend offered her father marijuana to help alleviate his nausea, Rader said, he refused it because he didn’t believe it was ethical to take an illegal substance.

“To me, that was a very sad thing,” the Norfolk woman said. “I don’t want to ever see that happen again.”

Rader is among the majority of Virginians from both political parties who believe marijuana possession should be decriminalized, and she’s taking note of the positions candidates for governor take on the issue.

Polls by Virginia Commonwealth and Christopher Newport universities over the past three years show that decriminalization has broad support throughout the state, despite the Republican-controlled General Assembly repeatedly rebuffing efforts to do just that.

Political observers note that while the state has a conservative reputation, Virginia’s demographics have changed dramatically over the past two decades. The growth in support for marijuana decriminalization, they say, nearly mirrors the explosive growth in support for gay marriage after the state banned it in its constitution.

“I think it’s driven by millennials who now are at the peak of their political power,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “There’s this libertarian view millennials have on a lot of social issues.”

As millennials increasingly favor legalization or decriminalization of marijuana, Kidd said they’re helping change their parents’ views. Rader said her children, ages 37 and 28, have urged her to use marijuana to help treat her own ailments, which include heart problems, arthritis and back pain.

“My kids have said, ‘Why don’t you smoke a little? Feel better, help your depression,’ ” Rader said. “I’m not ready to go there, but if it were decriminalized, I think I would in a heartbeat. I think it’s time. I think we’re beyond it. I don’t see a downside.”

The issue was thrust into the spotlight once again last week when Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam became the first gubernatorial candidate to publicly announce his support for decriminalizing marijuana.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have done so, which typically involves eliminating jail time in favor of fines, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of them, eight have and the District have legalized small amounts of marijuana for use by adults.

Northam gave multiple reasons for his stance. He said that black Virginians are 2.8 times more likely than their white neighbors to be arrested for marijuana possession; that the $67 million the state spends on marijuana enforcement could better be spent on rehabilitation; and that decriminalization could lead to more research that allows doctors to better prescribe marijuana for pain relief, drug-resistant epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder. The last is of particular concern in a state with a large military and veteran population.

“I’m a physician. I like to remind people there are over 100 medicines that we routinely use to take care of our patients that come from plants, so we need to be open-minded,” said Northam, a pediatric neurologist on leave from Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Norfolk to campaign for governor.

While Northam was the first candidate to support decriminalization, he’s not the only one who wants to open up the state’s marijuana laws.

Republican Denver Riggleman – a former Air Force intelligence officer who says he has never smoked a joint in his life – said it is time Republicans embrace making some changes such as the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes.

He said the state should stop wasting resources on minor marijuana convictions, and the GOP should align itself with the party’s stated values of limited government and let the states decide how to regulate it.

“There’s gotta be some common sense about marijuana at some point,” Riggleman said.

Studying the issue is exactly what Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment has asked the state crime commission to do, although there’s no guarantee it will. The body recommends crime-related legislation and consists primarily of Republican lawmakers. Its executive committee hasn’t voted on Norment’s Nov. 30 request.

Riggleman said penalties for marijuana possession should be reduced, but he stopped short of saying marijuana possession should be decriminalized without further study. It’s not just a hypothetical issue for him.

He said his brother was convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute in 2007 for having a pound of the drug. He said he served nine months of a 10-year prison sentence and just had his voting rights restored a few weeks ago.

“Those who have done nonviolent crimes, it probably shouldn’t take 10 years to get your voting rights back,” Riggleman said.

Riggleman and Northam are both facing primaries in their respective races. And with less than four months before those elections, their early positions could help distinguish them in a race where most voters are not yet familiar with the candidates.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week says between 54 and 89 percent of voters don’t know enough about candidates from either party to form an opinion of them.

With polling showing that public support for decriminalization is significant in both parties, Kidd said there’s little risk for Northam or Riggleman to jump into the marijuana debate.

“It crosses regions, it crosses age groups, it crosses partisan stripes, it crosses ideological stripes. In terms of a public policy thing, this is one of those situations where, if you were a Republican and you were considering supporting this, you really probably wouldn’t have to worry about backlash from your base because support is pretty widespread,” Kidd said.

“Virginia has changed pretty dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years on a lot of issues. … It isn’t the Virginia of our parents.”

Kidd said Northam’s announcement could especially help him appeal to younger voters who Kidd says he’s having a difficult time connecting with. Northam is facing a challenge from former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, who worked as a diplomat during the Obama administration and entered the race last month.

The Quinnipiac University poll showed Northam and Perriello tied with support from 19 percent of Democratic voters, with 61 percent undecided.

“Northam is doing everything he can right now to increase his name recognition and distinguish himself from Tom Perriello, and this is a way to do that. This is a way to take a progressive stand on an issue that progressives are going to like,” Kidd said.

But that advantage appears to be short-lived. On Friday, Perriello spokesman Ian Sams said in an email that Perriello also would support decriminalizing marijuana.

“Yes, of course. And as he has said consistently during his campaign, we have to fix our broken criminal justice system and re-engineer the school to prison pipeline into a school to workforce pipeline. This includes reforming our outdated and often racially biased drug laws,” Sams said.

Republican candidates Frank Wagner, a state senator from Virginia Beach, and Corey Stewart, a former state campaign official for Donald Trump, did not respond to requests for comment on their views on marijuana decriminalization.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie’s campaign said in a statement that while Gillespie opposes marijuana legalization or decriminalization, “he does support exploring reforms to make sure that penalties align appropriately to the offense committed.”

Politicians’ stances on this issue is something voters like Rader say they’ll be paying attention to.

Rader said she had been a lifelong Democrat before this last election but might return to the Democratic fold for the gubernatorial race. While she said he hasn’t picked a candidate to support, Northam’s stance on marijuana may give him an edge.

“I think our state is ready,” she said. “It’s time.”


This story originally appeared on PilotOnline.com.

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