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March 13, 2017

Gov. McAuliffe expected to sign marijuana reforms

The polling shows that Virginians desperately want their marijuana policy changed and laws reformed in some capacity, and I think that lawmakers are starting to hear the call in Virginia as well as throughout the U.S.
— Maggie Ellinger-Locke, legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project
By SaraRose Martin
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia probably will ease up a bit in its laws against marijuana by making it easier for epilepsy patients to obtain cannabis extract oils and by relaxing the penalty for people caught with small amounts of marijuana.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is expected to sign the handful of marijuana-related bills passed by the General Assembly during its recent session. They include SB 1027, which will allow Virginia pharmacies to make and sell marijuana extract oils for treating intractable epilepsy, and HB 2051 and SB 1091, which will eliminate the state’s punishment of automatically suspending the driver’s license of adults convicted of simple marijuana possession.

Currently, it is illegal in Virginia to purchase THC-A or CBD oils. In 2015, the General Assembly carved out one exception – for people who suffer from intractable epilepsy. Epilepsy patients and their caregivers are allowed to possess the marijuana extract oils. But they face problems buying the medication.

SB 1027, sponsored by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, will allow “pharmaceutical processors” — after obtaining a permit from the state Board of Pharmacy and under the supervision of a licensed pharmacist — to grow low-THC cannabis, manufacture the oil and then provide it to epilepsy patients who have a written certification from a doctor.

“Virginia will only be the second state in the nation that has this type of program, the first being Missouri,” said Maggie Ellinger-Locke, legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates liberalizing marijuana laws.

“It’s a far cry from an effective medical marijuana program, but it’s still a step in the right direction.”

Ms. Ellinger-Locke said 28 states and the District of Columbia have full-fledged programs in which people with cancer, glaucoma and other diseases can get a prescription to use marijuana.

Mr. Marsden’s bill includes an emergency clause. So when the governor signs it, the law will take effect immediately.

Del. Les Adams, R-Chatham, and Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, carried the measures regarding driver’s licenses. Under the legislation, which would take effect July 1, judges will have the discretion to suspend the license of an adult convicted of marijuana possession – but the penalty would not be automatic. Juveniles would still be subject to an automatic six-month suspension of their driver’s license.

Ms. Ellinger-Locke said the laws are in step with reforms happening across the country.

“We are optimistic,” she said. “The polling shows that Virginians desperately want their marijuana policy changed and laws reformed in some capacity, and I think that lawmakers are starting to hear the call in Virginia as well as throughout the U.S.”

Those calls went largely unheeded during the 2017 legislative session, as about a dozen proposals, ranging from establishing a medical marijuana program to decriminalizing marijuana possession, failed.

For example, Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel of Winchester introduced bills to make marijuana products available to people with cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and several other diseases (SB 1298) and to create a pilot program for farmers to grow hemp (SB 1306). Both bills cleared the Senate but died in the House.

Marijuana likely will be an issue in statewide elections this year. Ms. Vogel, who is seeking the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, has vowed to be an advocate for medical marijuana.

“It has no psychotropic effects, and no one is dealing it on the illicit market. For the people that are sick and really wanted the bill to pass, it was heartbreaking,” Ms. Vogel said. “I think this is a little bit of bias and a little bit of lack of education . . . . The overwhelming majority of the voting public believes having access to that kind of medication is very helpful.”

Medical marijuana bills faced opposition from legislators afraid that expansion may become a slippery slope. Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun, recalled returning from serving in the Marines in Vietnam in the 1960s when, he said, marijuana use caused a collapse of “good order and discipline.”
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