At least two Southwest Virginia sheriffs say they’re concerned about the General Assembly’s decision to legalize marijuana.
On Wednesday, Virginia became the first Southern state to legalize marijuana, as lawmakers voted to approve Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed changes to a bill that will allow adults to possess and cultivate small amounts of the drug starting in July.
Northam’s amendments would accelerate the timeline of legislation by about three years, well before retail sales would begin.
Democrats say the bill was a matter of urgency, a necessary step to end what state figures show is a disparate treatment of people of color under current marijuana laws. Republicans, who overwhelmingly oppose the bill, railed against the latest version.
Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said his office doesn’t favor legislation legalizing any mind-altering recreational drug. One main concern Andis has is reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the potential impact on youth.
“The legalization of marijuana will be more available and accessible for use by children since adult growers, users will be able to cultivate and possess marijuana at home,” the sheriff said.
The new law allows up to four plants per household and states that precautions must be taken to prevent access by children but doesn’t specify what the precautions should entail, Andis said. He added that marijuana will not be tested or regulated for potency.
Andis said marijuana has great medical values, if prescribed by a doctor and used for medical conditions.
“There is still much confusion contained in the new law for what is permitted and what is illegal,” Andis said. “The lawmakers in Virginia have made great efforts in controlling tobacco use among adolescents that have to be 21 years of age to purchase, while a pediatrician-governor has just made marijuana more accessible.”
Northam is a physician.
Wise County Sheriff Grant Kilgore said he believes the legislation has moved too fast.
“It is unclear to me why this changed so drastically, from the original timeline,” Kilgore said.
The sheriff said he believes marijuana legalization will increase traffic fatalities. Unlike with alcohol impairment, no such breath test currently exists to accurately measure drug impairment, he said. Marijuana and other drugs would be detected through blood tests, which generally can’t be administered along the road.
Kilgore said children will also be impacted. He said Colorado, one of the first states to legalize marijuana, had an increase in kids under 8 overdosing from ingesting edibles that looked to them like regular candies and sweets.
Overdoses among children have increased in Colorado, according to a report published by the National Institutes of Health.
Kilgore said black market drug sales also thrive in states where legalization has occurred because they come in and undercut government pricing.
Washington County Commonwealth’s Attorney Josh Cumbow said the legislation will not change much in his office. Small amounts were already only subject to a civil penalty, so they were not being prosecuted, he said. His office will continue to prosecute large amounts of marijuana as felonies, he said.