King George County is the first locality in the Fredericksburg area to publicly discuss prohibiting retail sales of marijuana.
Annie Cupka, chair of the King George Board of Supervisors, recently asked County Attorney Matt Britton to look into the necessary steps to ban sales after the Virginia General Assembly legalized the adult recreational use of cannabis.
Localities within the state can prohibit the sale of the drug within their borders—if voters approve such a measure in a referendum—but no local body can ban the possession or personal cultivation and use of cannabis, according to the bill.
“As a former law enforcement officer, I saw first-hand the effects drug abuse can have on individuals as well as the community,” said Cupka, “be this through impaired driving, increase in crime rates and a negative impact on our youth and education. I think it will burden our Sheriff’s Office and negatively impact our community as a whole.”
Other supervisors agreed, as did Sheriff Chris Giles.
“I’m all in,” said the sheriff, adding he doesn’t like the idea of the county making it possible for people to “shoot over to the local convenience store and buy themselves a bag. I’m totally against it. It’s just not right.”
Mark Herring, Virginia’s attorney general, would contend otherwise. He celebrated the General Assembly’s action on April 7, saying the state’s existing cannabis policies were archaic and “disproportionately affected Black Virginians and Virginians of color, saddling them with convictions that could potentially hold them back for the rest of their lives.”
People will be allowed to grow up to four cannabis plants for personal use starting July 1, but retail sales to those age 21 and over will not begin until Jan. 1, 2024. Individuals also can petition to have past marijuana convictions suspended or modified or have their records regarding them sealed, according to the bill.
Unless a person is licensed to have larger amounts of marijuana, possession of more than a pound in a public place remains a felony, while having an amount between an ounce and a pound will be subject to a $25 fine.
Proponents of the measure cite one its biggest financial benefits: a 21-percent tax on retail cannabis statewide and additional taxes imposed by each locality of up to 3 percent. Proceeds will go to programs to help at-risk youth, substance abusers and those in communities disproportionately affected by drug use.
Giles said King George’s narcotics officers see a lot of marijuana and what’s being produced is much more potent than in the 1970s. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical in marijuana that causes psychological effects, averages about 15 percent and is even higher in extracts, according to the Marijuana Factcheck website.
That’s about triple the potency of earlier days, Giles said. “People who say, ‘Oh, it’s just relaxing,’ they don’t understand that.”
Greg Traber, a private therapist and reformed addict, doesn’t see marijuana as a gateway drug. He said people who started with it in the past might have moved on to stronger drugs because marijuana didn’t do the trick.
“Nowadays, you’re getting enough to get high where before you turned to something else because you couldn’t smoke enough marijuana,” he said.
He also cited the medical benefits of marijuana, as well as the relief from anxiety and depression provided by products such as CBD oil. Also an active ingredient in marijuana, CBD or cannabidiol doesn’t provide the euphoria of THC, the other chemical.
Dana Brown, another recovering addict who helps others through a faith-based operation, said marijuana was a gateway drug for her, but she couldn’t say if the same is true with others.
“Some use it for their entire lives or some only for their college career and then they’re done,” she said.
Like the chair of the King George supervisors, Brown was concerned about the impact on young people.
“We just want to be really aware of what decisions our children are going to be making at such a young age and what they’ll be thinking is OK,” Brown said. “Of course, we don’t want anybody to smoke cigarettes—it’s not healthy—and I would assume the same thing for marijuana.”
A 2020 study that looked at marijuana legalization between 2000 and 2019 found that the substantial changes in its legal status hadn’t had “much overall effect on marijuana use by children and adolescents, at least during the past two decades,” according to the American Journal of Public Health. It said “prevalence of marijuana use among adolescents has remained remarkable steady over the past 20 years despite substantial changes in its legality.”
The same is true for increasing crime rates and other concerns, said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia’s chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. While Pedini recognized the “valid concerns” of public officials, the director said Virginia isn’t just “guessing about this.”
“We aren’t unsure about this as a policy choice,” said Pedini. “It is after studying the lessons learned over two decades of regulatory experience with cannabis in the United States that Virginia came to the conclusion about how to better provide legalization through regulation.”
In addition, a February 2021 poll by Christopher Newport University found that 69 percent of Virginians favored legalization of marijuana—though the support was in differing degrees.
Younger people, age 18 to 44, supported it more than those age 45 and older (80 percent compared to 56 percent). Black voters supported the measure more than whites (78 percent to 65 percent) and Democrats more than Republicans (80 percent to 51 percent).
Cupka, the King George supervisor, cited the benefits of marijuana for cancer patients and in mental health treatments. She said she supports its use as prescribed by professionals.
So does 1st Sgt. Rob Grella with the Stafford Sheriff’s Office.
“If it helps with anxiety, let a doctor prescribe it,” he said. “I don’t really think legalizing a drug for recreation is something we need to do.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425