By Robert Sharpe, originally published in the Roanoke Times
Virginia is one of 18 states where the government operates a monopoly on the distribution and sale of hard liquor. Virginia’s Alcohol Beverage Control stores are a holdover from alcohol prohibition. Lasting from 1920 to 1933, alcohol prohibition was repealed when it became clear that prohibition was financing organized crime while failing miserably at preventing alcohol use.
Making the case for ABC privatization, Gov. Bob McDonnell has argued that selling alcohol is not a core government responsibility. Neither is criminalizing people who use marijuana.
State alcohol sales generate state revenue. Virginia brings in $324 million a year from alcohol sales. Marijuana prohibition, on the other hand, squanders tax dollars and creates opportunity costs as police focus efforts on nonviolent consensual vices. Virginia police made 19,764 arrests for marijuana offenses in 2009. Six percent of all Virginia arrests are for marijuana offenses. Police time spent busting marijuana consumers is time not spent going after child molesters, rapists and murderers.
Virginia legislators will soon get a chance to end this misuse of police resources. In the upcoming 2011 General Assembly session, Del. Harvey Morgan, R-Gloucester, has proposed a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession. HB 1443 would replace criminal penalties for simple possession with a civil fine of $500. The bill does not reduce penalties for cultivation or distribution. Courts would still have the option of mandating substance abuse treatment for at-risk youth.
In the face of continued budget woes, Virginia legislators need to ask themselves a simple question. Which is the bigger priority? Locking up nonviolent marijuana offenders or saving the jobs of police officers, firefighters and teachers? The cost of incarcerating three marijuana offenders for a year more than covers the salary of a police officer, firefighter or teacher. Morgan’s bill would save on criminal justice costs and generate millions in new revenue.
Morgan is no dope-smoking hippy; in fact, he is ideally suited to push the envelope on this once-controversial but increasingly mainstream issue. Morgan is a Republican member of the General Assembly and, more important, an assistant clinical professor of pharmacy at Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical school. His bill is grounded in legitimate clinical expertise and fiscal conservatism.
Marijuana decriminalization admittedly faces an uphill battle in Virginia. Big government culture warriors will no doubt oppose HB 1443. Make no mistake, marijuana prohibition is a cultural inquisition, not a public health campaign. If health outcomes instead of cultural norms determined drug laws, marijuana would be legal. Unlike alcohol, marijuana has never been shown to cause an overdose death, nor does it share the addictive properties of tobacco.
Marijuana can be harmful if abused, but criminal records are inappropriate as health interventions and ineffective as deterrents. Studies show that states that have decriminalized marijuana do not have higher rates of use than states that criminalize users. The U.S. has double the rate of marijuana use as the Netherlands, where marijuana is legally available.
This is the type of abject government failure that should outrage proponents of limited government. Tax dollars are being wasted on a failed government program. Public safety resources are being diverted to further a punitive nanny state built upon a hypocritical version of morality.
The ideological arguments being used to make the case for Alcohol Beverage Control privatization apply to marijuana law reform. Criminalizing citizens who prefer marijuana to martinis is not an appropriate role for government.
Fiscally conservative Republicans and tea partiers who truly believe in liberty and limited government will support marijuana decriminalization.
Democrats who privately support marijuana law reform but fear the soft-on-drugs label need to get smart-on-drugs and get behind HB 1443. They’ve got a conservative Republican leading the way for them.
Bottom line, Virginia can no longer afford to subsidize the prejudices of culture warriors.