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Opinion Virginia, just legalize marijuana already

Maryland's first legal outdoor marijuana farm in Cambridge in 2019. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Virginia Democrats are making headway in the efforts to reform the commonwealth’s criminal justice system, even if, on issues such as qualified immunity for police officers, it takes a couple of tries to get moving in the right direction.

But they are still not ready to fully embrace one issue: marijuana legalization.

Virginia did enact marijuana decriminalization. While possession and consumption remain illegal, getting caught now merits a $25 civil fine. Not everyone was pleased with the move.

The Virginia ACLU led a coalition opposed to decriminalization. In a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam (D), the groups said decriminalization “does nothing to end racist pretextual stops by police.” Instead, the coalition urged an end to marijuana prohibition.

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus put legalizing marijuana on its list of priorities for the special session. And there’s even a bill to achieve part of that goal. Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William), who is running for governor, is the chief patron of HB 5141, a measure that would legalize “simple possession of marijuana.”

While it does away with the civil penalty, prevents law enforcement from using the hint or suspicion of marijuana use to conduct searches and seizures and more, it doesn’t end prohibition.

That step would allow adults to buy and consume the product legally and companies to grow and process it. Full legalization would also require governments to regulate and tax marijuana.

Eleven states have legalized recreational marijuana use. Twenty-two have legalized it for medical use. More states will decide the issue this November.

Carroll Foy’s bill won’t add Virginia to those lists. Instead, it’s a bow to political reality: Prohibition may be bad, but Virginia just isn’t ready to give in that sort of sin and debauchery.

Never mind the state-sanctioned gambling and lottery. Or the state-owned liquor monopoly. Or centuries of tobacco farming.

In its letter to Northam, the ACLU and others said, “study is needed before Virginia can consider or implement an equitable system to regulate the legal sale of marijuana.”

If we do a little homework, we quickly discover legalization is no panacea. Yes, the tax revenue can be very good — but it takes time to reach scale. Then there are the health issues.

As the New York Times’s Jack Healy reported on Colorado’s experience, “More people here are visiting emergency rooms for marijuana-related problems.” At the same time, “state surveys do not show an increase in young people smoking pot.”

A Washington State University study showed officers surveyed did not want to recriminalize marijuana. But they said states considering the idea should first conduct “broad public educational programs, emphasizing juveniles and drivers, and how the law affects them,” and, “expanded officer training, especially on the regulatory rules governing growing cannabis.”

Just like alcohol, and even tobacco, legalized marijuana does not end law enforcement involvement. There will be health issues requiring education and resources. Overall, it sounds like legalization is, at best, a lateral move from one set of problems to another similar set of problems. Why do it?

Because prohibition is immoral. The late Milton Friedman said: “Now here’s somebody who wants to smoke a marijuana cigarette. If he’s caught, he goes to jail. Now is that moral? Is that proper? I think it’s absolutely disgraceful that our government, supposed to be our government, should be in the position of converting people who are not harming others into criminals, of destroying their lives, putting them in jail.”

I once had hopes Virginia Republicans would follow Friedman’s advice and lead on this issue. Most of them seem to be more comfortable playing drug warrior than reformer. And Democrats? They are nibbling at full legalization’s edges. Again — maybe that’s all politics will allow right now. But, inevitably, they will be the ones who have to lead on this issue.

Because it’s the right and moral thing to do.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: How marijuana is going to become bipartisan

Paul Armentano: It’s time for D.C. to fully legalize marijuana

Doug Fine: Five myths about legalizing marijuana

The Post’s View: Bowser’s proposal to legalize the sale of marijuana will lead to a fight with Congress. Bring it on.