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Where There’s Smoke: State of the Region Examines Marijuana in Hampton Roads and Virginia

The distinct aroma of an impending change to the law is floating through the air in Virginia.

Though the Commonwealth has not yet taken up legislation considering legalization or decriminalization of marijuana, more than 30 states have medical marijuana laws, and 25 have either legalized or decriminalized the drug for personal use.

In this year's State of the Region Report, economists from Old Dominion University's Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy took a thorough look at marijuana in Hampton Roads, including the delicate calculus of changing the law about possession and recreational use of the drug here.

"Given the conversations taking place in Hampton Roads and throughout Virginia about marijuana, it is time to consider what a change in its legal status might look like, whom it might affect and how it might impact the cities and counties of our region," the report stated.

Within the last two decades, citizens' attitudes toward marijuana use have become far more relaxed. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans favor its legalization or decriminalization (taking enforcement out of the criminal courts) by a margin of 62% to 34%. A summer 2019 survey by Old Dominion's Social Science Research Center found 65% of residents in favor of full legalization.

These figures are probably not surprising, as more than half of Americans now report having used the drug in their lifetimes.

In Hampton Roads, based on reported usage rates, more than 190,000 adults used marijuana in the previous year and almost 104,000 in the previous month, among the highest rates in Virginia.

However, there are issues around changing the law pertaining to possession and usage. The researchers noted African American arrest rates for marijuana possession are three to five times higher than whites in Virginia and Hampton Roads.

While legalization may not be a revenue boon for localities, it could address inequities in the criminal justice system. Yet, marijuana decriminalization or legalization is not without dangers. Legalization has led to increases in potency, car crashes, and emergency department visits, the State of the Region Report noted.

The ODU researchers concluded the chapter by outlining things Virginia lawmakers should consider before taking up legalization or decriminalization legislation:

  • Marijuana is not a cure for the ills of local governments.
  • Many of the medicinal claims of marijuana and similarly infused products are unproven, and research will take time.
  • Marijuana decriminalization or legalization does not eliminate the black market for marijuana.
  • Hampton Roads' interdependence with the federal government and the military means that many residents have a job that requires a drug test, security clearance or both.
  • While marijuana legalization does not appear to increase the rate of use by minors, there is strong evidence that marijuana potency increases with legalization.
  • Decriminalization or legalization will create new burdens on law enforcement.
  • If a decision is made to undertake a change in the law concerning the drug, fully legalizing recreational marijuana will do more to address inequalities in enforcement than just decriminalizing the drug.

The 2019 State of the Region Report, as well as previous years' reports, are available on the Dragas Center website.

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