Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring called recently for the decriminalization and subsequent legalization of marijuana in the state. “Criminalization of marijuana possession is not working for Virginia,” Herring said in his statement June 15. “We are needlessly creating criminals,” he added (to me a rather odd assessment for a law enforcement official. Doesn’t a person choosing to break the law make himself a criminal?) Herring (a likely candidate to run for governor of Virginia in the next election) went on to call for the Commonwealth to move “thoughtfully toward legal and regulated adult use.”

To supporters of legalized pot, Herring’s conclusions seem so abundantly self-evident and modernistic that the subject is simply beyond discussion. Who could oppose such a wave-of-the-future proposal, except puritanical fuddy-duddies and uptight killjoys? Legal marijuana, will, after all, empty out prison cells, provide needed tax revenue, prevent young adults who only want to have a good time from gaining a criminal record, keep Big Brother out of our weekend fun, and discourage the use of more serious narcotics such as opioids or meth. Come on, who could actually oppose the creation of such a perfected Virginia?

The answer: plenty of people who stop to consider the ramifications of legalized marijuana. It seems to me that the proponents of pot seldom show much interest in follow up questions. But before the legalization train becomes a runaway, let’s stop and ask a few, all adding up to the big one: will a Virginia where weed is legal be a better place?

(We’ll leave aside the separate question of medicinal use of marijuana and deal primarily with recreational use here. Much of the info below comes from a Virginia-based advocacy group called Smart Approaches to Marijuana—SAM).

Is marijuana a harmless drug with little impact on public health and addiction?

SAM reports that a 2017 study of the subject found that “marijuana users were more than twice as likely to move on to abuse prescription opioids, even when controlling for [other factors].” A CDC study found that marijuana users are three times more likely eventually to develop a heroin addiction.

Will Virginia’s roads be safer with legal pot or less safe?

A study out of Colorado, where pot was legalized several years ago, found that incidents of drugged driving resulting in a fatality rose from roughly one per week to roughly three every week after legalization. Auto insurance rates have shot up, with good reason, in states where legalization has passed.

Given Herring’s call for “legal and regulated adult use,” will marijuana stay out of the hands of minors? Ask yourself how well that works for alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs. Studies consistently show that, while youth marijuana use has been falling nationwide, in states where legalization has been enacted it has been rising.

Will the mental health of Virginians be improved or hindered by legal pot?

Use of marijuana has been shown by many studies to correlate to increased incidences of schizophrenia and other psychoses. Other studies have linked heavy (and even moderate) use to impaired learning, diminished memory, decreased attention span, and even permanent loss of IQ in heavy users. Other studies show a correlation between marijuana use and incidences of suicide, especially among vulnerable youth.

Will legal marijuana be good or bad for Virginia’s economy?

Certainly if pot were taxed and people paid the tax, as they do with cigarettes, there would be revenues coming into the state coffers. But this is only half of the equation. What about the costs to society related to pot users who suffer higher health risks, mental health issues, traffic crimes, and other negative consequences? Add to that the fact that heavy marijuana users are often considered virtually unemployable by workplaces, and have difficulty keeping any job they get. Workplace performance understandably suffers, discipline problems and absenteeism go up, and accidents on the job increase with pot use. Soon you get the unavoidable sense that legal pot will cost much more than it raises in tax money.

The argument about legalizing marijuana is not so one-sided as proponents, now including our Attorney General, often maintain. That it seems to be trendy and that cool people advocate the policy are no reasons to rush into a change that may well lead to disastrous outcomes for Virginia’s society. Many years ago the American legal system erected a fence around marijuana use. It’s always a good idea, when tearing down a fence, to stop and consider why it was built in the first place.

Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.

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