Marijuana Supporters: Va. Wastes Money on Punishing Users

By: Chris Stover Email
By: Chris Stover Email

May 21, 2014

The legalization of marijuana has been a hot topic nationwide, but the discussion has been happening in Charlottesville for some time.

Local supporters of legalization say the state is wasting money by punishing people for smoking, and Jason Amatucci is one of them.

"We have a very good community here that is aware with what's going on with the laws, and is in the forefront of Virginia, which is great," said Amatucci, the founder of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition.

Amatucci sets up tables occasionally along Charlottesville's Downtown Mall to educate people about industrial hemp, the male form of the Cannabis Sativa plant that can be used in foods and clothing.

The problem is the female version of that same plant is marijuana. Both are illegal in Virginia.

"It's insanity, actually," he said. "The definition of insanity."

Recent polls show a growing number of Virginians support medical marijuana. While fewer people support recreational use, those numbers are also on the rise.

Charlottesville attorney Jeffrey Fogel said legal efforts to suppress the use of marijuana are a waste.

"It's cost the society a fortune, and it's been useless," Fogel said. "The principal argument that's being made is God forbid we allow our young people to get this. Well, the fact is the black market is selling to our young people and that the best chance we have to regulate that and to ensure that young people aren't getting access to it is to regulate it."

Something now legal in Colorado and Washington state can get someone in Virginia up to a year in jail, costing the state anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000. Two years ago, Fogel introduced a proposal to city council that would eliminate jail time for first-time marijuana offenders.

The resolution didn't pass.

"Frankly, I don't get it, because all we're doing with this proposal is don't send people to jail. And that's very, very simple," Fogel said.

Amatucci agrees.

"Just merely possessing something and getting put into a cage -- we have to look at it that way," he said. "It's a normalcy bias, that 'Oh, we always grew up, and this is just the way it is, and drugs are bad, and you have to penalize people this way.'"

But there's apprehension on the local level about reducing punishments for marijuana possession.

"To me, it's just not right, and it's got to change," Amatucci said. "We the people have to put the pressure on these people. We need to vote people out who don't hold our opinions on this."

What did change is the number of marijuana arrests. It's one of the lowest priorities for Charlottesville police, and from 2012 to 2013, the number of arrests for possession dropped from 135 to 105. A police spokesman said some of those charges are secondary offenses, but the breakdown of those numbers was not available.

"All of us have had the experience of breaking traffic laws, where the police officers give us a warning and send us on our way," Fogel said. "There's no reason that police departments shouldn't be dealing with it the same way."

Both Fogel and Amatucci compare marijuana to alcohol, something both say is more dangerous.

"We know alcohol is a dangerous drug. We know that hundreds of thousands of people die of it each year, that it's inevitable, and we know that it interferes with people's ability to perform in society," Fogel said. "Those are all reasons that are used to keep marijuana illegal, and yet they're much more applicable to alcohol."

"The Cannabis Sativa plant is so valuable, yes, both sides should be legal, medicine/recreation and industrial hemp," Amatucci said.

Both also have faith that legalization is in Virginia's short-term future. A bill is expected to go before the next session of the General Assembly to legalize the male form of Cannabis Sativa, or industrial hemp.

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