50 States

50 States: Virginia

By Jon Young

Medical: CBD oil only
Recreational: No
Decriminalized: No

Medical marijuana (MMJ) has been legal in Virginia since 1979, nearly two decades before California passed Proposition 215, yet few if any lawmakers knew about it until 1997 when the legislature tried to repeal the long-forgotten law without success.

However, and this is a big however, due to the language of the bill, Virginian doctors would have to “prescribe” cannabis to patients who would then acquire it at pharmacies, making the law unworkable. Federal law prohibits doctors from prescribing a Schedule I substance that is seen as having no medical value—doing so could cost them their license—and pharmacies are not allowed to distribute Schedule I substances. The reason 25 other state’s versions of MMJ bills are workable is because doctors only have to “recommend” MMJ, and therefore meet state requirements without breaking federal law.

It’s no wonder Virginian lawmakers forgot they passed the bill. It was useless.

Then, 36 years later, lawmakers in Virginia finally passed a bill that allowed the possession of CBD oil (cannabidiol, or CBD, is a cannabis compounds shown to reduce the frequency of seizures in some patients). Despite the bill, patients can still bearrested, just not convicted, and the law gave no legal means to obtain or produce the oil within the state. This year, Senate Bill 701, sponsored by Sen. Dave Marsden, passed both the House and the Senate unanimously, paving the way for the state Board of Pharmacy to create rules and regulations for pharmaceutical companies to produce and distribute the oil in-state. However, the bill requires a second passage next year, and patients with intractable seizures will have to wait until at least 2017 to obtain CBD oil.

“Providing this medication to Virginians is absolutely the right thing to do,” Sen. Dave Marsden said. “THCa and CBD oils have shown the ability to help alleviate the number and severity of seizures from intractable epilepsy and help so many families live a quality life.”

The passage of the bill was a major victory for CBD advocates in Virginia.

"The fact is this is a southern state. It is a conservative state, but we are on the way. We've made some progress here. It's going to help children. It is going to help families,” said Sen. Marsden. "And let me tell you something... The greatest allies I had in this were the families of these kids. They were relentless. They were positive.”

As parents of severely epileptic children watched the Senate vote in favor of the bill, many broke into tears, according to the Washington Post.

"This is a landmark victory," said Jenn Michelle Pedini of Cannabis Commonwealth. "There have been years of blood, sweat and tears that we have poured into achieving these very minor reforms."

But the limited bill is only the first step, as advocates continue to fight to expand the coverage of the bill.

"It is a type of medical discrimination," said Pedini. "Why is a child dying from cancer less important than a child suffering from intractable epilepsy?"

While the fight to improve Virginia’s long standing MMJ laws continues, other lawmakers are trying to reduce Virginia’s penalties for first-time offenders caught in possession of cannabis. Sen. Thomas Garrett introduced a bill to remove the automatic six-month suspension of one’s driver license if caught in possession of cannabis, but it failed to get past the House. Likewise, Sen. Adam Ebbin introduced a bill that would have reduced the penalty for first-time offenders from a $500 fine, up to 30 days in jail and a misdemeanor charge to a $100 civil fine, but it didn’t get past the committee process.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, remains reluctant in his support for cannabis reform. In fact, he once received an F rating from National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), one of the few Democrats to receive the lowest rank, though he currently has a C rating.

“I’ve never been a legalization fan,” Sen. Kaine said in a radio interview. “Just for a whole series of both health and sort of crime-related reasons, I think it would not be a good idea.”

Then, in the same interview on the topic of drug sentencing for low-level cannabis offenses, “I think, often, for sentences for marijuana and marijuana usage, I think some sentences are too strict,” Sen. Kaine said. “These are often, if they’re nonviolent crimes, I think it could be handled in a different way on a sentencing standpoint.”

While not necessarily a step backward in terms of cannabis reform, advocates have nothing to get excited about with the potential Vice President.

“I wouldn’t vote for a law at the federal or state level that would decriminalize marijuana,” Sen. Kaine said at a forum.

Both on the national and state level, Virginians have a way to go before more meaningful reform is realized.

Photo credit: Unsplash.

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