Blazing Trails in Virginia: An Interview with G. Malik Burnett, MD, MBA, MPH

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by T.J. Thompson

Virginia is blazing with progress following the 2017 statewide elections. Voters in the Commonwealth went to the polls in November with a reformist agenda, electing Democrats for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. The biggest news of the election is the loss of a near super-majority the GOP had in the House of Delegates. 

With this shift in numbers has also come a shift in the amount of progressive legislation introduced. One such area, although not progressive for residents of D.C. and Maryland, is cannabis policy reform. Virginia trails behind her neighbors along the Beltway when it comes to marijuana access. 

The Commonwealth may begin catching up to D.C. and Maryland in the realm of cannabis, dependent upon what percentage of bills on this topic are passed. National Cannabis Festival reviewed some of the legislation with G. Malik Burnett, MD, MBA, MPH. Burnett is a current physician at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health developing data transforming drug policy from a criminal justice mentality to a public health concern. His previous experience includes orchestrating the campaign for I71, the ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in the Nation’s Capital. 

One of Burnett’s most impressive accomplishments is the push to lower the fine for public consumption of marijuana in D.C. to $25, utilizing his research background to prove any higher fine would unjustly target minorities. This social justice approach is one that has gained traction and is applied in proposed Virginia legislation. Below is the conversation with Burnett on decriminalization and the social justice aspect of Virginia’s filed legislation. 

Decrim: http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?181+sum+SB111 

This bill is from Sen. Ebbin and he has the best grasp on what is necessary to address the criminal aspect of the drug war and marijuana. The concern is Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Tommy Norment also intends to introduce a bill that will compete with this one. Here is a link from the paper that serves Norment's district regarding his intentions: http://www.dailypress.com/news/politics/dp-nws-norment-marijuana-20180108-story.html.

I have yet to see his actual bill language. (This interview was conducted prior to seeing Norment’s decrim bill.) 

How would you say Sen. Ebbin's decrim bill compares with the legislation passed in DC and MD? 

Senator Adam Ebbin has been a long-time supporter of cannabis reform and I am encouraged by his introduction of SB111. The bill is certainly an improvement on the current status of cannabis possession in VA and would definitely serve to decrease the number of people incarcerated in VA for simple possession. It would also move Virginia's cannabis policy closer to those of its mid-Atlantic neighbors in DC and Maryland. As decriminalization bill's go, SB111 falls in between DC and Maryland in terms of the fines associated with cannabis possession. In the District, cannabis possession is legal up to two ounces and in Maryland possession of up to 10 grams of cannabis subjects the individual to a fine of $100, for a first-time offense, $250 for a 2nd offense, and $500 for a subsequent offense. However, it is critical to note that replacing criminal penalties with fines has the net effect of imposing a tax which falls primarily on low income people of color. 

This is a well-documented phenomenon in other states and given the fact that Virginia has disproportionately biased enforcement of its cannabis laws against communities of color, it is a foregone conclusion that this law will continue to impose the burden of the state on those same communities. 

Beyond the fines, the law maintains the capacity for courts to suspend driver’s licenses for individuals found to be in possession of cannabis which is completely onerous, and only serves to exacerbate the collateral consequences already associated with being involved in the criminal justice system. In a state like Virginia where access to public transportation is not ubiquitous nor convenient, limiting a citizen’s ability to drive for merely possessing cannabis fundamentally undermines their ability to be a productive member of society, which should never be the end result of any piece of public policy. 

The concept of decriminalizing cannabis as a matter of public policy, should result in the removal of cannabis from the criminal justice system to the greatest extent possible. In the District of Columbia's decriminalization effort, this was accomplished not only by lowering the penalty to $25 for all infractions with no increasing penalty for subsequent violations, but additional provisions were included which eliminated the ability of law enforcement officials to use the odor of cannabis as a pretext for search. It is no secret that law enforcement officials use and abuse their authority to circumnavigate the 4th amendment rights of individuals with the odor of cannabis. This immediately allows an officer to escalate their interactions with a citizen and leaves the citizen with little to no recourse in response to the law enforcement officers supposition. By removing, cannabis as a pretext for search law enforcement officials can no longer use cannabis, to pad arrest statistics, gain overtime pay, or to more broadly create an effective gateway to place citizens into the criminal justice system. Progressive minded legislators, Senator Ebbin included, should champion provisions like the one above in their efforts to truly decriminalize cannabis. The above applies to the Maryland law as well, as there are no provisions which address this issue. 

Finally, the issue of juvenile offenses for cannabis possession, is handled differently in the Virginia decriminalization bill relative to the DC effort. While cannabis use among youth should be actively discouraged, burdening young people with criminal records or limiting their capacity to participate in society is not helpful towards their long-term success. In lieu of imposing suspensions or mandatory drug education classes for youth, the District of Columbia makes a concerted effort to involve the parents or guardians of youth by sending a letter to these individuals alerting them to the fact that their child has an encounter with the law enforcement and that there are educational or support services available to them should they choose to pursue those avenues for their child. Ultimately, this policy helps to develop a sense of personal responsibility within an adult caring for a child rather than creating a proverbial "nanny state" where the government supposedly knows what is best for a child's personal development. 

Overall, the adage that all politics is local, can explain the differences between the decriminalization efforts in Virginia relative to the District and Maryland. Full decriminalization, that is the removal of cannabis from the criminal justice system to the greatest extent possible is most readily represented in the District; while Virginia and Maryland have similar versions of what can best be described as criminalization lite. 

From your experiences working on those two decrim bills, how do you believe the proposed Virginia legislation would affect the racial disparities in mj arrests in Virginia? 

Decriminalization as implemented in DC and Maryland improves the extent to which individuals are forced to suffer criminal penalties for cannabis possession, that is the total number of arrests goes down significantly once a decriminalization law is passed. However, the reality of the situation is that the disparity in enforcement remains in effect, and can at times be exacerbated. This is more so a byproduct of the over policing of communities of color and the governments decision to invest more dollars towards law enforcement than economic development. It is important to note that the effort to reform cannabis laws is a vehicle through which this imbalance in community investment can reversed. By limiting the total number of people with criminal convictions in a community, the community by default will be more likely to prosper, coupling this reduction in law enforcement activity with committed efforts around economic development, through the creation of cannabis based economies or otherwise, creates a multiplier effect for economic development prospects for those same communities. Virginia legislators would be well served to this creatively about supporting these types of opportunities. 

What is your reaction to the thoughts of Tommy Norment's intentions, as we do not have a bill filed from him yet? With what he has laid out to the press how do you see his ideas affecting racial disparities in Virginia marijuana arrests? 

Having the Senate Majority Leader in Virginia actively support the effort to reform cannabis laws in the state cannot be understated. This is a very positive development, and significantly increases the likelihood of seeing progress on the issue inside of the legislature. Virginia has a long way to go towards moving its cannabis laws in line with the national best practice standards, and as with all reform efforts progress is incremental. Given that SB111 is already proposed before the Senate, there is a working model upon which Senator Norment will probably build, in all likelihood the bill will become more conservative in form and fashion, however, this may actually work to increase its potential for passage. The passage of any legislation that lowers the criminal penalties associated with cannabis possession would improve the arrest rate for marijuana possession in the state and would have a net positive impact for communities of color. However, much more work will remain, after the passage of any bill, in order to truly eliminate racial disparities. 

What would you suggest to the Virginia General Assembly in moving forward with mj policy reform? 

The Virginia General Assembly can take a number of simple steps to improve the cannabis policy situation in the state, which includes passing SB111 with the elimination of drivers license related penalties for all parties. Additionally, the Assembly should pass medical cannabis legislation which established a regulated system for the creation and distribution of medical cannabis in the Commonwealth. This is a widely popular policy among both liberal and conservative constituencies within the state and the newly elected Governor ran on a medical cannabis platform. Passage of a comprehensive policy is much more prudent that any of the piecemeal legislation related to specific disease conditions, certain cannabinoids, or provisions for affirmative defense which are currently being proposed. 

If you are interested in helping push this legislation to the finish line, Virginia NORML is having their annual conference and lobby day this Sunday and Monday (1/21-22) in Richmond. More information can be found at their website, www.vanorml.org.

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About the author

T.J. Thompson is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, having served from 1998-2004. He was stationed on board USS Portland, LSD-37 from '00-03 and deployed to Europe in the Mediterranean Sea, South America, and in support of the Global War On Terror to the Persian Gulf in early 2003. Thompson was raised in Chesapeake, Va. where he currently resides with his family and is a member of the Chesapeake Human Services Advisory Board. He has worked directly with the U.S. House and Senate on marijuana policy reform for veterans. T.J. has been a featured speaker and panelist with organizations such as High Times’ Cannabis Cup, Americans for Safe Access, and Virginia NORML.

Caroline Philips