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01.08.15 -- Taking possession of the marijuana issue in Richmond

Among some legislative trends this year in the Virginia General Assembly are several bills by Fairfax County-based legislators — on both sides of the aisle — that to some degree or other attempt to decriminalize marijuana.

Some bills, such as Senate Bill 686 sponsored by Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Dist. 30), call for widespread decriminalization, while others such as House Bill 1445 sponsored by Del. David B. Albo (R-Dist. 42), call for very narrowly-tailored decriminalization applied to very specific medical uses.

Currently in Virginia it is unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally to possess marijuana unless the substance was “obtained directly from, or pursuant to, a valid prescription or order of a practitioner while acting in the course of his professional practice.” Even under these guidelines, the use of medical marijuana is allowed only for the treatment of cancer and glaucoma.

In 2012 in Virginia, of the more than 23,000 marijuana-related arrests reported by state law enforcement, 89 percent were solely for possession. Knowingly or intentionally possessing even less than a half an ounce marijuana in Virginia is a Class I misdemeanor with punishment upon conviction consisting of imprisonment for up to 30 days and/or a fine of up to $500, for a first offense; and imprisonment for up to 12 months and/or a fine of up to $2,500 for the second and each subsequent offense. Possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana is considered simple possession, or possession for personal use — and possession of one rolled marijuana cigarette is enough to be actionable under this law. Ebbin’s district consists of approximately 200,000 residents who reside in portions of Arlington, Alexandria and parts of Fairfax County’s Mount Vernon and Lee Magisterial Districts.

If passed into law his bill, SB 686, would decriminalize marijuana possession and change the current $500 criminal fine for simple marijuana possession to a maximum $100 civil penalty payable to the Literary Fund and eliminate the 30-day jail sentence. The Literary Fund is a permanent and perpetual school fund established in the Constitution of Virginia. Revenues to the Literary Fund are currently derived primarily from criminal fines, fees, and forfeitures, and provide low-interest loans for school construction, grants under the interest rate subsidy program, debt service for technology funding, and support for the state’s share of teacher retirement required by the Standards of Quality.

SB686 also creates a “rebuttable presumption” that a person who grows no more than six marijuana plants grows marijuana for personal use and not for distribution. “That means that if you are arrested with six or fewer plants, in court you would be able to debate that it was for personal use and not automatically be penalized for distribution,” Ebbin said. “I have received support from constituents and colleagues alike on this issue.”

Other bills, such as HB1445, sponsored by Albo, call for a very strict and narrow expansion of allowable uses of marijuana for very specific medical conditions.

“Let’s be clear about this. I am not for legalizing marijuana,” Albo said. “There has been a medical marijuana law on the books for years. I am simply trying to add epileptic and other types of seizure disorders to the list of approved medical uses, which currently only includes glaucoma and cancer.”

Albo said the impetus for his bill came from one of his constituents, Lisa Smith; whose daughter Haley, a student at West Springfield High School, suffers from a rare seizure disorder called Dravet syndrome, or Severe Myoclonic Epilepsy of Infancy (SMEI). The disorder is caused by a genetic mutation in a protein that regulates electrical activity in the brain. According to Smith’s website, www.haleyismyhero.com, people with SMEI experience almost every type of seizure known. The first seizure usually occurs in an otherwise normal, healthy infant before one year of age and is usually associated with fever. Initially, generalized tonic-clonic seizures (Grand Mal Seizures) occur every few months and tend to turn into “status epilepticus” (a prolonged seizure that is very difficult to stop, even with medication). Haley began having seizures at 5 months old. According to the website, individuals with Dravet syndrome have only an 85 percent chance of surviving to adulthood.

“There is a marijuana-based, non-psychoactive oil that has proven to calm the seizures,” Albo said. “You can’t get high from it, so there is no reason to abuse it. But currently under Virginia law it would be illegal to possess it. It is difficult for me to justify that when a kid like Haley can benefit from it and not suffer as much by using it.”

Sen. Dave Marsden, (D-Dist. 37), says he will soon introduce a similar bill in the senate. “There are a significant number of people who have loved ones who suffer from intractable seizure disorders who will benefit from legal use of this product,” he said.