House panel rejects marijuana bills

Published 8:00 am Friday, January 29, 2010

RICHMOND—A House subcommittee on Wednesday rejected legislation that would have decriminalized marijuana possession and allowed doctors to legally prescribe the drug to their patients for various illnesses.

The criminal subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee tabled two bills that Delegate Harvey Morgan, R-Gloucester, called part of a “compassionate and sensible drug policy” for Virginia.

Morgan’s proposals drew support from former law-enforcement officials, legal professionals, members of the medical community and patients who have used marijuana. However, subcommittee members did not let either bill go forward for consideration by the full committee.

The subcommittee voted unanimously to table House Bill 1134, which would have decriminalized possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana.

The subcommittee voted 4-3 to table HB 1136, which would have allowed doctors to prescribe medicinal marijuana to treat a range of ailments and conditions.

The subcommittee’s chairman – Republican Delegate H. Morgan Griffith of Salem – praised Morgan for introducing HB 1134, even though Griffith voted against it.

“I would congratulate Harvey for putting the bill in,” Griffith said, “merely for the point that I think it’s a subject that the public at large needs to begin thinking about.”

Delegate David B. Albo, R-Springfield, also voted against HB 1134, which Morgan said would have saved much as $225 million a year in law enforcement and court costs by changing marijuana possession from a criminal to a civil offense.

But Albo said he might have voted differently if the savings could be earmarked for law enforcement.

“I can tell you, if we were somehow able to capture the money that is savings and use it to expand Alicia’s Law or bust more bad guys, you’d have a convert,” Albo said. (Alicia’s Law refers to efforts to protect children against sexual predators on the Internet.)

Morgan offered to modify HB 1134 if doing so would help pass the measure.

“I would be willing to accept almost any amendments to at least get something that will make our situation better than it is today,” Morgan said.

In voting to table HB 1134, several subcommittee members expressed concerns about decriminalization of marijuana. They also said the proposal would have reduced the punishment for large-scale distribution of the drug.

Several citizens testified on behalf of the medicinal value of marijuana, saying the drug had numerous benefits in treating illnesses and was not addictive.

Virginia now permits marijuana only for the treatment of cancer and glaucoma. HB 1136 would have allowed doctors to prescribe the drug to treat other conditions such as AIDS, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain.

Griffith, who voted in favor of HB 1136, noted that state law already allows doctors to prescribe “OxyContin, oxycodone, morphine derivatives and some of the other drugs that are far more powerful than marijuana plant material.” So he supported a medicinal marijuana law.

But most subcommittee members appeared concerned that the HB 1136 did not limit what ailments could be treated with marijuana.

“I like this bill,” Delegate Charniele L. Herring, D-Alexandria, said. “But one of the things that I am concerned about, I’m hearing the medicinal purposes and that it helps, but I feel like I don’t have enough scientific evidence in front of me.”

Although his bills failed, Morgan ended up getting the last words.

“Chairman, we’ll be back,” he said.