Why Virginia should look at medical marijuana

Posted: Sunday, March 5, 2017 2:15 am
When a judge talks, it’s usually best to pay attention.
So when retired Roanoke Circuit Court Judge Richard Pattisall came to see us recently, we naturally listened. When he suggested that Virginia should legalize medical marijuana, that definitely got our attention. After all, here’s a man who’s sent people to jail for drug offenses.
Pattisall had a very particular reason for why he thinks   should take this step, one that he laid out in a recent commentary on these pages: Jobs (and the potential to tax the crops.) Specifically, that’s jobs in the coalfields, a part of the state where he grew up and still has an affinity for.
His rationale: Medical marijuana is becoming more accepted — it’s now legal in 28 states (though not Virginia) and the District of Columbia. If states are allowing marijuana as a treatment for certain medical conditions, it’s got to be grown somewhere. Why not Virginia? And why not in a part of the state that’s desperate for jobs?
Pattisall has not, we assure you, been smoking something. There really is an economic development argument to be made for medical marijuana. When Illinois legalized medical marijuana in 2014, small towns across the state were clamoring for a marijuana “cultivation center” to locate in their community. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a company say, ‘Hey, we want to bring in 50 jobs and we want to bring in tax revenue to your school,”’ Liz Skinner, the mayor of Delavan (population 1,163) told the Chicago-based Daily Herald. When Revolution Enterprises finally opened its “cultivation center” in Delavan, it instantly became the largest private employer in the town.
Perhaps here’s a good place to stop and clear up some misconceptions. Medical marijuana isn’t the same as “recreational” marijuana. It also isn’t necessarily consumed by smoking a joint. There’s an entire industry springing up to turn the essential ingredients into capsules, chewables, sprays, ointments and even, umm, suppositories. Somebody’s got to do all that processing. We’re talking small pharmaceutical operations here, not Cheech and Chong with a bunch of rolling papers.
Also you notice we use the phrase “cultivation center.” That’s not meant to be a euphemism. We’re not talking open fields of pot. The “cultivation centers” are greenhouses, with some pretty strict controls. The Chicago Tribune last year took a tour of one of the state’s 19 “cultivation centers” and described these security measures: “The Joliet facility has 144 security cameras monitoring its 40,000 square feet, with a feed to Illinois State Police. Every plant is tagged with an identification number to track it from seedling to sale.”
The finished products at Cresco Labs are held in “bank-style vaults” until they’re ready to be shipped. Those deliveries resemble the way armored vehicles handle cash or other sensitive shipments: “Drivers deliver the products in locked boxes to any of 40 state-authorized dispensaries. Each time, workers at the retail stores must call Cresco to get a special code to open each box.”
The director of the state program regulating the medical marijuana industry is a former police officer who told the Tribune “there have been no major criminal incidents associated with the program, such as theft of medical marijuana or sales to people who aren’t certified.”
The opposition to medical marijuana is mostly a philosophical one. We’re unlikely to resolve that today, although we will point out that such opposition is dwindling.
Even the otherwise conservative congressman from Southwest Virginia — Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem — is in favor of medical marijuana. This year, the Virginia General Assembly took up a bill that would have opened a crack in state law to allow medical marijuana for those suffering from cancer, glaucoma and 10 other conditions. It was sponsored by a Republican, state Sen Jill Vogel of Fauquier County. It even passed the Republican-controlled Senate by a robust 29-11 before dying in a House subcommittee.
Is it possible that someday House Republicans will be persuaded that allowing capsules, chewables, sprays, ointments and suppositories laced with THC isn’t the same as telling Virginians “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em?”
Let’s skip over the politics and cut to the bottom line: What’s the potential economic impact?
Let’s turn again to the Chicago Tribune: “Once mature, Illinois’ medical marijuana companies should employ at least 1,000 people … potentially 2,000 including ancillary jobs. Nationwide, the cannabis industry is expected to employ 46,000 to 60,000 people this year in dispensaries, cultivation centers, testing labs and infused product makers.”
Let’s go with the smaller of those figures: 1,000 jobs. That’s not enough to make a difference in the state’s overall economy, but it’s more than enough to make a difference in a small community — or several small communities. Those 19 Illinois “cultivation centers” average 52 workers in each one. Question: How many localities in rural Virginia would like a company to show up that created 52 jobs in a growth industry? Answer: All of them, we suspect.
It’s also instructive to read what the mayor of that one small Illinois town told the Journal Star newspaper in Peoria about the public response to the Cresco Labs “cultivation center” in her town: “The outcry has been close to nil, and I’ve heard more from residents on this issue than any other during my eight years as mayor,” Skinner said. “I’ve had one negative phone call and two negative emails. Everyone I’ve spoken with on the streets or in church has been positive.”
Now let’s look at that higher figure of potentially 2,000 jobs in Illinois. That’s an interesting number for this reason. Do you know how many coal miners are left in Virginia? Just 2,483. Medical marijuana is not going to replace coal. No single thing is going to replace coal. It will take lots of creative thinking to build a new economy in the coalfields, or anywhere else in rural Virginia, for that matter.

Is that an argument for rural legislators in Virginia to look anew at medical marijuana? If you can get past the giggles, and look at it simply as a highly regulated industry dealing with a strictly controlled pharmaceutical product, why wouldn’t this simply be an economic growth measure?

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