condensed and edited by EJ Toudt
FORMER DISNEY ENTERTAINER
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF VIRGINIA NORML
What is your role at Virginia NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws)?
I lead the state organization. We have eight local chapters around the state (that) fall under local representation of Virginia’s lawmakers. As the development director for NORML, I make sure that we have the money necessary to run the organization and continue our work to end the federal prohibition of marijuana.
What did you do before you were with NORML?
I was born and raised in Orlando, actually third-generation Disney. I had my first career there (and) spent 10 years with the company in entertainment.
Wow, what did you do at Disney?
I worked in entertainment (paused then laughs), then I moved to Manhattan and worked in media for a while, ultimately landed in Virginia, became a mom, and promptly battled cancer twice after that. Thus was my introduction to marijuana policy. After my second round of cancer, I had to have a stem cell transplant. It was my only potential curative option. And the chemotherapy for the transplants often causes leukemia and that’s a really scary health outcome for an adult. So, I wanted to know what options I would have if something like that happened, if I faced cancer a third time. If I had developed leukemia, what can I do? I just watched my family member, who was only 10 years older than me, die from leukemia. And while the idea of medical marijuana was certainly out there at the time, it wasn’t something that was available in Virginia and people weren’t necessarily talking about it outside of palliative treatments. My family ended up traveling to Colorado. I saw physicians there who talked about medical cannabis therapies that they use on their oncology patients to prevent relapse or to reduce tumors. And then I thought, huh, well I certainly don’t have that available in Virginia. If I did get sick, it would be really difficult to pick up and move in the middle of the healthcare crisis. So, I met the founder of NORML, Keith Stroup, I told him my story and he said that you should get to work on public policy in Virginia and so I did. I came for the healthcare and stayed for the criminal justice.
What type of recent legislation has Virginia NORML had a part of getting in front of the government and what has passed?
This legislative session we passed four bills that significantly expand Virginia’s medical cannabis program. Two bills that are identical, a senate bill and a house bill, were signed (recently) by Gov. Northam. And the passage of these bills, make Virginia the fourth state in the nation to allow school nurses to administer medical cannabis for registered student patients. This is legislation that’s not only progressive for Virginia, it’s progressive for the country. … We also continued to work on expanding patient access to different types of products.
Is Virginia NORML also working to decriminalize?
We have decriminalization bills filed every year and this year I was given the opportunity to provide feedback to the administration on a decriminalization bill that they proposed. It was a good bill. I loved some of the policy. I gave them my feedback; they accepted the majority of it and then amended their bill. My focus was making sure that the fines were not out of reach for people. That a bill like that wasn’t targeting those of lower social economic status. A great example was the public consumption component, they didn’t want people to be walking down the street smoking marijuana. And I said, “You know, after decriminalization it isn’t going to be like Colorado,” (or) whatever fantasy that is in their mind. After decriminalization, which is not legalization, you are not going to have dozens of people walking up and down Cary Street smoking marijuana. That’s not going to be the types of people a law like that is going to tar-get. People who are sitting outside public housing, that is who a law like this would have targeted. We don’t need to set this highly punitive level for something like that, we need to think about who that law is really is going to impact.
Do you think marijuana might be legal in Virginia and then nationwide or do you think it could be nationwide first?
It’s entirely possible for it to be legal in Virginia first depending on who Virginians elect. We are two to three years away from a bill that ends the federal prohibition of marijuana. The speed at which that happens in Virginia is up to Virginians.
I think the hardest thing for voters is that a lot of politicians don’t just come out and say, “I am for it. I am going to run on it.”
I think people don’t know how to talk about it. I think for so long they have (faced) questions like, “Do you support the legalization of marijuana?” and that immediately triggers a certain frame. The question they should be asked is, “Do you support ending federal prohibition and allowing states to set their own marijuana policies?” At the state level, … you should be asking, “Do you support regulating the adult use of marijuana so we can take it off the street corner and put it behind an age-verified counter and require consumer safety standards, like labeling and lab testing?”
Every year Virginia chooses not to regulate the adult use of marijuana, what we are effectively saying is that we would prefer for criminal enterprise to be the regulators of the marijuana industry.
Recent statistics show that up to 62 percent of Virginian’s support adult recreational use. What’s the hold up?
Sixty-six percent of Americans supported ending federal prohibition way back in 1969, the first time Gallop thought it was reasonable to ask that question. Same thing holds true at the state level. Talking about decriminalization, which was fines not crimes at the state level, close to eight out of 10 Virginian’s favor that policy model instead of what we’re doing now. In 2017, we arrested nearly 28,000 Virginians for marijuana possession. That’s up 20 percent from 2016. The national average for marijuana arrests is sliding downward; Virginia’s is skyrocketing off at astronomical proportions. That is the death rattles of prohibition, my friend. The days are numbered.
BEERS CONSUMED DURING INTERVIEW
Interview conducted at Bingo Beer Co., Richmond, Va.
Sangrita Gose: 2