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80-year-old Virginia Republican leads state’s marijuana decriminalization fight

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Virginian lawmakers will have a unique opportunity to end criminal penalties for simple possession of marijuana in their state when the 2011 Virginian General Assembly Session convenes on Wednesday, January 12.

Surprisingly enough, 80-year-old Republican Delegate Harvey Morgan, an assistant clinical professor of pharmacy at Virginia Commonwealth University, is leading the charge to decriminalize marijuana possession.

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Legislation proposed by Morgan, known as House Bill 1443, would replace the criminal fine for possession with a civil penalty and eliminate the 30-day jail sentence and criminal record that would follow conviction.

The bill would not change penalties for the manufacture or distribution of marijuana. It would also continue to require drug screening and education for minors convicted of marijuana possession.

Morgan introduced a similar bill in January of 2010, but the legislation never made it out of committee in the 2010 General Assembly Session.

“The Commonwealth continues to punish people for mistakes made decades ago,” Morgan said during a news conference in January. “We need to move to a more honest, reasoned, compassionate, and sensible drug policy, and this bill does that.”

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“In 2007, nearly 18,000 people were arrested in Virginia for simple possession of marijuana,” he continued.” This places a tremendous burden on law enforcement, prisons and the judicial system. In these times of economic hardship, we need to closely examine how our tax dollars are spent.”

“When you consider that research indicates that variations in penalties—including jail time—have no discernible effect on the prevalence or frequency of marijuana use, making simple possession a civil rather than a criminal offense makes sense.”

With seven bills introduced to the General Assembly to outlaw “synthetic marijuana” — such as popular legal smoking blends like “Spice” and “K2” — the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORMAL) says that “a robust drug policy debate… is virtually guaranteed” in the 2011 Virginian General Assembly Session.

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Virginia police made 19,764 arrests for marijuana offenses in 2009, according to The Daily Progress.

On his TV show 700 Club, Pat Robertson, one of the cornerstone figures of America’s Christian right movement and resident of Virginia, warned that current drug laws are having a negative effect on society.

“I’m not exactly for the use of drugs, don’t get me wrong, but I just believe that criminalizing marijuana, criminalizing the possession of a few ounces of pot, that kinda thing it’s just, it’s costing us a fortune and it’s ruining young people,” Robertson said. “Young people go into prisons, they go in as youths and come out as hardened criminals. That’s not a good thing.”

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