Delegate calls for ‘sensible’ drug policy

Published 8:11 am Friday, January 22, 2010

RICHMOND—Before a packed room in the General Assembly Building, Delegate Harvey Morgan, R-Gloucester, on Wednesday called for laws allowing the medical use of marijuana and reducing the penalties for possession of the drug.

Morgan, 79, said the bills he is sponsoring represents a “compassionate and sensible drug policy.”

“I have received more media inquiries about these bills than any measure, I believe, that I have ever patroned,” Morgan said. “To me, this serves as an indication that support for a sensible approach to policies regarding the medicinal use of marijuana is widespread.”

Under existing law, Virginians suffering from cancer or glaucoma can use medical marijuana. However, the drug is not legally available in plant form. Patients must obtain a prescription for Marinol, a pill that contains a synthetic form of delta-9-tetrahydrcannabinol, or THC — a chemical found in marijuana.

Morgan, a pharmacist, is sponsoring House Bill 1136, which would let medical professionals prescribe marijuana to treat other conditions, such as AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and chronic pain.

“It respects the judgment of medical professionals and their patients to determine the best and most effective course of treatment,” Morgan said.

Aron Lichtman, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Marinol is not very effective: “There is a very slow onset; it’s difficult to titrate the correct dose. So inhalation of [marijuana] makes a lot of sense.”

M. Imad Damaj, also a professor of pharmacology at VCU, said Morgan “is well aware that every drug has this balance between benefit and harm.”

“This bill does not give the regular person the authority to decide what drug they have to have for their disease, it’s left in the hand of the physician,” Damaj said. “Some people will really benefit from this.”

Lennice Werth, director of Virginians Against Drug Violence, said THC isn’t the only chemical in marijuana that has beneficial medicinal uses.

“There are other substances there that actually mitigate and add to the medical benefits,” Werth said.

Morgan, who has served in the General Assembly for three decades, said he understands that “medications have benefits and risks” and that marijuana isn’t the answer for everyone.

“This bill simply allows for one, and only one, additional treatment option for patients – one administered under a physician’s close supervision,” he said.

Morgan also is sponsoring HB 1134, which would decriminalize possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana. The bill would create a civil penalty of $500 for possession of such an amount. (Currently, possession of an ounce of marijuana is a criminal offense, punishable by a fine of at least $500, jail time and a permanent criminal record.)

HB 1134 would also remove the mandatory two-year sentence for distribution of less than 1 ounce of marijuana and the mandatory five-year sentence for the distribution of more than 1 ounce.

“We need to move to a more honest, reasoned, compassionate and sensible drug policy, and this bill does that,” Morgan said.