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Virginia delegate Morgan seeks to decriminalize marijuana

Harvey B. Morgan, a pharmacist and 31-year member of the House, says criminalizing marijuana has done little to curb its use.
Harvey B. Morgan, a pharmacist and 31-year member of the House, says criminalizing marijuana has done little to curb its use. (Joe Mahoney/richmond Times-dispatch Via Associated Press)
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By Rosalind S. Helderman
Thursday, January 21, 2010

RICHMOND, JAN. 20 -- It's high times in the Virginia General Assembly. The lobbyists are cracking jokes about "joint" sessions, and the legislators are laughing that free Girl Scout cookies delivered Wednesday could prove useful.

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In the District, the city council is on the verge of approving legislation to allow the use of medical marijuana. In Maryland, a senior Republican has joined a senior Democrat in planning to propose a similar bill in the state Senate. But in conservative Virginia, the idea is a joking matter for many.

That is, except for the slight, bespectacled, often-bow tie-wearing Republican delegate from Gloucester County who has proposed decriminalizing marijuana this year. Del. Harvey B. Morgan has also sponsored a separate bill that would allow medical marijuana.

At an earnest, and well-attended, news conference Wednesday, Morgan, 79, said doctors, who are accustomed to weighing the risks and benefits of drugs, should be able to prescribe marijuana in instances in which research has shown it could be medically effective.

Morgan, who is a pharmacist and, with 31 years in the House, the second-most senior delegate, said he thinks criminalizing pot has done nothing to curb its use. Instead, a possession conviction can permanently mar the records of people who have made mistakes in their adolescence.

He distributed a list of jobs from which someone with a drug record is permanently barred in Virginia -- teacher, pawnbroker, taxi driver. And he said the state could save millions during the budget crisis by relieving the jails of those incarcerated for marijuana possession.

Under Morgan's proposal, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana would become a civil offense, punishable by a $500 fine.

Morgan said his bills have been viewed largely with amusement by his Republican colleagues. Some have taken to holding pinched fingers to their lips, to mime smoking a joint, as they pass him in the hallway. Others have been plotting to hang a bow tie festooned with cannabis leaves on the doorknob of his General Assembly office in the dead of night.

"I think there is nobody in the House of Delegates who has more credibility, knowledge and experience with pharmaceuticals than Harvey Morgan," cracked Del. William R. Janis (R-Goochland), "because he's a pharmacist, of course."

Janis continued: "This accounts for why there's never any brownies in the members' lounge when Harvey's around."

Morgan said he was not concerned about the jabs.

He has a history of going against the grain in his party. Once a supporter of Virginia's death penalty, he has more recently become an opponent. In 2004, he sponsored a bill requiring earplugs at venues that sponsor live entertainment louder than 80 decibels.

"Sometimes they roll their eyes at me anyway," he said. "I'm an individual."

Morgan, admired by his colleagues because of his long years of service and genial nature, said he would stick with the issue.

"I think if they will take the time to see the information that I have, I think they will take it more seriously," he said.


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