This blog has looked at the issue of legalizing marijuana on several occasions and has looked at some of the negatives of Virginia's current draconian marijuana laws: (i) the laws are disproportionately applied to non-whites, especially black males, (ii) the resultant criminal records condemn young offenders to a permanent underclass and impede them from securing jobs and becoming productive citizens in the future, and (iii) alcohol is a much larger societal problem. There are more, but numbers (i) and (ii) are to my mind the most relevant. Now, a retired Circuit Court judge from Southwest Virginia has become and advocate for legalizing medical marijuana, in part because it makes economic sense, especially in that region of Virginia:
[W]hen 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 Virginia 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.”
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 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.