As a former congressman and member of the 2017 President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, and as a former three-time White House drug policy adviser, we join countless Virginians in commending the House of Delegates’ rejection of the commercialization and normalization of marijuana in the Old Dominion. The halt of the Big Tobacco-backed push for legalization and sales demonstrates that legislators have delivered on their promise to prioritize the well-being of all Virginians.
When legalization was rushed through during last year’s legislative session, the legislature failed to listen to scientists and families with important concerns. It should come as no surprise that Altria, America’s largest Big Tobacco company, led the charge on marijuana legalization in Virginia.
People are also reading…
The commercialization of marijuana in Virginia — the production, marketing, and sale of the drug — was a rushed policy decision that would have harmed public health and public safety. Additionally, the normalization of marijuana use would have failed to address health risks, such as marijuana-induced psychosis that can occur in people with mental health issues, and for which scant data exists on who is most at risk. Such lax accountability would be unacceptable for any other consumer product, so why should marijuana get a pass?
It was reported during his campaign that now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s “main objective [regarding pot] will be making sure minors don’t use or have access to marijuana.” That is a laudable objective, but it cannot be achieved if the state allows the sale and promotion of the drug.
California, for example, has seen youth marijuana use explode since legalization.
And youth in states that legalized marijuana had rates of past-year cannabis use disorder that were 25% higher than youth in states that did not.
Education, one of the top issues in the 2021 election, is inextricably linked to the marijuana issue, as marijuana use leads to poorer educational outcomes. We know using marijuana harms the adolescent brain by reducing cognition and memory. Investments in substance use prevention, especially for impressionable youth, should be scaled up. Virginia’s leaders should also dedicate significant resources to increasing treatment for mental health issues and substance use disorders, which have afflicted youth during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to his colleagues defeating commercialization, House Speaker Todd Gilbert’s spokesman said, “The overriding top-tier concern is that we have to have a regulatory structure in place for retail sales that does not encourage the black market.” This is critical because no legal marijuana state has been able to address the problem. Roughly 90% of marijuana sales in Massachusetts last year were on the black market. And half of all sales in Oregon and Washington were illicit.
Virginia should continue to reject commercial sales and invest in prevention of marijuana use and further address criminal justice reform. It is worth noting that legislators should not confuse efforts to legalize marijuana with the decriminalization of its use, which is a different policy that would expunge records and remove criminal penalties for low-level use. We are calling not for increased incarceration but for a balanced policy focused on education and prevention.
Despite popular belief, marijuana commercialization is unpopular with Americans. A February 2021 poll found that 68% of Virginians indicated their support for legalization. However, when two additional policy options are included — decriminalization or medical use — support for legalization drops to 38%, a national poll recently found.
Virginians may not want someone to go to jail for a joint, but they definitely don’t want pot gummy bears and youth-targeted billboards.
The recent vote to reject commercialization will help improve mental health, advance public health, and protect public safety across Virginia. It’s time to invest in quality prevention, education, and treatment for marijuana-related harms and continue to condemn the sales pitch of Big Tobacco.
Kennedy, a former U.S. representative from Rhode Island and member of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis is the author of “A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction.” The lead sponsor of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, he is the son of Edward “Ted” Kennedy.
Sabet, a former drug-policy adviser to three U.S. presidents, is president and CEO of SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), a non-profit organization he founded with Kennedy and David Frum.