The Case for Legalizing Cannabis in Virginia

The Case for Legalizing Cannabis in Virginia

By Tench Phillips, Naro Cinema

We are living in a time of great cultural change regarding cannabis. It’s been a long time coming for those of us who were first experimenting with the plant back in the sixties and seventies. At the time, we thought we were on the cusp of a cultural revolution that would change everything. The shift of consciousness provided by the plant found free expression in our small gatherings and communities across America. And the sixties revolution in music, politics, and the arts fostered the growth of mass movements for equality, civil rights, the environment, and against the war.

But it is only now, fifty years later, that the majority of social attitudes have finally shifted to the defense of cannabis. Not that there isn’t plenty of resistance remaining in the halls of power in this country. Today, our society straddles the fence between illegal and legal, between taboo and panacea, between backyard homegrown and commercial gold rush. 

Over the decades, cannabis has been loved or reviled as a recreational street drug, a healing medicine, or a sacred plant ally. But in more recent years, Americans have changed their minds about marijuana. In less than a generation, public opinion has shifted from prohibition to advocating legalization. Voters in nine U.S. states and the District of Columbia have now legalized cannabis for recreational use. And yet cannabis remains a Schedule I drug on the federal level – defined as being without any social or medicinal value. Nevertheless, it seems that the Trump administration has continued Obama’s hands-off approach of respecting state rights. Notwithstanding the aggressive rants by attorney general Jeff Sessions.

Even the name of this plant is divisive. Although ‘medical marijuana’ has become the popular term, I choose to use the latin derived botanical term, cannabis, to recognize this singular plant that has co-evolved in close relationship with mankind over the millennia. I feel that most of the colloquial and street slang labels associated with the plant – marijuana, pot, dope, weed, herb, grass, ganja – trivialize the plant and show a kind of disrespect. They are associated with an unconscious, intoxicated state  – popularized as being stoned silly. The use of these labels can enable the stigmatizing of the plant by the greater culture.

It’s understandable that industrial society views the enhanced state of cannabis fearfully. The personal, inner experience of cannabis doesn’t lubricate the wheels of commerce like drugs derived from fermented yeast and roasted beans – aka alcohol and coffee. Although social drinking may serve a constructive purpose for society, the downside of these beverages can impact a revved-up populace to become more aggressive, hyper-competitive, and inebriated.

In contrast, the feminizing influence of cannabis enhancement can be contemplative and mind-expansive. The values learned from the plant can embody cooperation and understanding. But regardless if society perceives cannabis as a subversive indulgence serving no practical function, adults have the right to choose how to alter their waking consciousness.

These qualities of cannabis are the very reason that our patriarchal culture of domination has maligned cannabis and continues to make it illegal on the federal level as a Schedule I drug – labelled as absent of any redeemable social or medicinal value. The years of fear mongering and propaganda have ghettoized cannabis. The repeated warning that it’s a gateway drug has been quite effective in the argument against legalization. But in fact, socially sanctioned drugs like tobacco, opioids, and alcohol have been shown to hold that distinction. Government-sponsored lies and hypocrisy have only eroded citizen’s trust and respect in our political system and its leaders, especially among our children.

Medical marijuana has become the slogan of choice in the greater campaign for legalization. The medicine is now condoned by a majority of citizens if its intended usage is for healing and relieving sickness. More medicinal usages for cannabis are constantly being discovered. The plant is being used as a medicine for cancerous tumors, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress syndrome, inflammation, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. The true benefits of this healing plant are finally being reported in the mainstream media, irregardless of the resistance by pharmaceutical companies whose industry is being threatened by a free-growing medicinal weed that can’t be patented. 

But what is as yet to be fully understood is the fact that all marijuana is medical in nature. We now know that cannabis enhances the endocannabinoid system within our own bodies. We may be out of balance due to the environmental, physical, and emotional depletion brought on by modern stress and anxiety. The phytocannabinoid molecules of the plant fit perfectly into the receptors within our own bodies. The plant contains dozens of different cannabinoids ranging from  psychoactive THC to cancer-healing CBDs. Cannabis evolved these complex alkaloids and pheromones long before there were humans around to consume and benefit from them. This begs the question, who cultivated who, the plant or the animal? 

Incredibly, the endocannabinoid system inherent in mammals was only recently revealed and understood since the 1990s. Why did it take medical research so long to reveal a new homeostatic system? The long overdue understanding of how cannabis interacts with our animal bodies is due in part to years of government prohibition initially enacted in the sixties that restricted scientific research into the plant.

The consumption of mind-altering plants change our very consciousness. If used with some reverence and respect, the plant teachings will expand one’s awareness and philosophical understanding of what it means to inhabit a human body and reveal our connection to the earth and the web of life. These teachings come none-too-soon for modern man. In our anthropocene age of species extinction, the enhanced consciousness of the reawakened Gaian mind is imperative for the transformation of centuries of patriarchal rule and corporate control.

What a profound and unexpected gift this little plant is! How can it even be explained? This symbiotic relationship between plant and animal, a co-evolutionary tract that provides health and awareness, as well as fiber for our comfort and convenience. Our founding fathers cultivated the hemp plant for multiple uses including clothing, paper, and rope. The struggle to legalize the hemp plant goes hand-in-hand with the efforts to legalize the psychoactive species of cannabis.

Cannabis has been used by mankind for millennia. As a comparison, it’s been illegal for only a span of eighty years. During the 1930s, our government redirected their authoritarian power away from alcohol prohibition and enacted cannabis prohibition. The use of marijuana among poor people of color and musicians made it a perfect scapegoat. The decades-long ‘war on drugs’ waged by the DEA has created untold suffering and misery.

For decades, law enforcement has arrested people of color for simple possession in blighted urban communities where the distribution of illegal drugs has been the main economic engine. Our judicial system has sabotaged communities and families by convicting and incarcerating massive numbers of people for simple possession and non-violent crimes. 

And the injustice continues to this day in Virginia. The number of arrests for marijuana-related crimes has actually increased by 20% last year to nearly 28,000. And of those, African-Americans are arrested at a rate more than three times the rate of whites, even though the ratio of the use of cannabis by blacks is no greater than that of whites.

State authorities explain away these recent statistics by pointing to the influence of legalization in other states and blaming citizens for taking liberties and being too careless. Regardless of whether that’s true, Virginia authorities are taking full advantage of the shifting climate surrounding legalization to yield their power and arrest citizens for mere possession. Racial and economic injustice continues to go unchecked in the Commonwealth.

Although Virginians overwhelmingly support the decriminalization of cannabis, the politicians and the authorities don’t. The continued obstruction of legalization by Republicans in the state legislature has finally softened a bit to allow the passage of legislation for medical marijuana. Persistent lobbying by desperate parents seeking a legal cure for their sick children has resulted in the establishment of the nascent Virginia system for growing and distributing medical marijuana. Medical doctors will be able to prescribe cannabis oils that will be grown in five separate facilities and dispensaries. The change of law does not legalize possession, but provides an affirmative defense if one is arrested and charged for possession. The policy procedure does seem ass-backward, but then that’s Virginia politics.

The law mandates that cannabis oils must be made from the plants grown in the facility, and contain at least 15% CBDs and may contain no more than 5% THC. The program does not allow for the consumption of the leaf or flower, nor for the use of edibles. But after years of effort for legal reform in Virginia, at least it’s a good start for an ongoing process.

A panel of regulators chosen by the Virginia Board of Pharmacy recently met in closed session and has given approval to five companies out of more than fifty applicants to grow and distribute the cannabis oils. Their selection is a mix of established cannabis industry companies currently operating in other states, and Virginia-based entrepreneurs. The license for the Hampton Roads-anchored Health Service Area went to a well-known industry player, New York-based Columbia Care.

The grassroots effort to push legislators to establishment the Virginia medical cannabis program was spearheaded by committed individuals and by Virginia NORML. Jenn Michelle Pedini, the executive director of Virginia NORML, has tirelessly educated and lobbied state legislators to get this bill through the state legislature. 

Pedini will be coming to the Naro to speak about her work in a discussion following the showing of the new documentary Weed The People  in our ‘New Non-Fiction Film’ series on Wed, Nov 14. She will be joined in the discussion by local residents and cannabis advocates Cindy Cutler and Jesse Scaccia. They will be bringing us all up to speed on the issues surrounding medical cannabis and legalization efforts in Virginia and in Norfolk.

Weed The People: The Pharming of Cannabis looks at the underground world of herbal medicine in this country, where patients become experts on their own conditions and spend thousands of dollars on illegal medicines that are concocted in suburban kitchens. Nowhere is this phenomenon more compelling than in the treatment of children, whose parents will stop at nothing to help heal them. Their inspirational stories come from throughout the country.

Only around 12% of adults in the U.S. regularly consume cannabis in some form. Contrary to popular opinion, this figure doesn’t increase in the states where cannabis has been legalized. Younger adults use cannabis at a higher percentage than those in older age groups. The use or the experimentation by teens of cannabis remains the highest percentage. And yet cannabis use by teens actually has decreased in states where recreational cannabis has been legalized. This evidence flies in the face of the alarmists who predicted that cannabis legalization would lead to rampant consumption by youth. It seems that legalization has taken much of the business activity off of the streets and out of the black market, making for better regulation and restrictions for youth.

Citizens are now taking back their personal rights that were confiscated over the last decades by ‘the war on drugs’. In states where cannabis is now legal, a different cultural context allows for a more open, less paranoid way of relating to cannabis and the altered state that she bestows. 

Legalization has fostered a green revolution that is now instructing our culture to be more equitable and humane. These teachings include horticultural cultivation of the plant in our own backyard, the adaptation of new ways of thinking and relating to each other, local economic initiatives that create legal open markets, and the political organizing necessary to challenge oppressive government policies.

 Entrepreneurship is driving this rapid shift, as the government forces that had once suppressed the use of the plant are now reaping the lucrative tax benefits of the legal cannabis economy. All the billions that have been reaped by law enforcement in the failed ‘war on drugs’ will not be surrendered willingly. It will be an ongoing struggle by citizen activists to keep government and corporations from confiscating newfound liberties and free market opportunities. The creation of the public commons is necessary to keep out wholesale exploitation by businesses in regulated markets.

Virginia is woefully behind other state initiatives to legalize cannabis. Canada is leading the way in becoming the second county in the world to legalize cannabis – Uruguay was the first. Virginians should be able to learn much from the successes and failures of the diverse policies implemented by other governments. Until our dysfunctional, corrupt Congress and draconian DEA is forced to take on drug legalization, Virginia must initiate its own reform.

64% of Americans think that cannabis consumption by adults should be a legal right. Of course, legalizing cannabis will not stop the dependence and abuse of the plant by some individuals. And there will be myriad other issues arising like driving under the influence that must be addressed. Most problems will be caused by ignorance and bad judgement. Instruction about the correct use and respect for this powerful plant can best be provided on a personal basis by knowledgeable staff at local dispensaries. 

But the benefits of legalization far exceed any liabilities. These benefits include the removal of cannabis sales from an unregulated black market that cultivates criminal activity. In addition, legalization neuters an unjust system of racist law enforcement and abusive courts that have incarcerated a massive number of poor people of color for non-violent crimes. The truth is – the real crime here has been the one perpetuated against the American people by our government.

Cannabis will show us the way out of our cultural morass – she always has. We only need to be quiet and listen. If we do our homework, we can learn how to use this little plant in a responsible and respectful way. I recommend a recent anthology written by teachers and authors working in diverse fields of medicine and philosophy. ’Cannabis and Spirituality: An Explorer’s Guide to An Ancient Plant Spirit Ally’ has been edited and published by Stephan Gray. 

 

Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema

FirstLook Film Forum– Fall Season 

The new season of this subscription-based series starts Sunday, October 14th. The season includes seven film premieres on Sunday mornings with a pre-show brunch, introduction, film research notes, and discussion. Visit narocinema.com for playdates and info.

Ingmar Bergman at 100 

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s birthday, the Swedish Women’s Educational Association (SWEA) presents three of his best films on consecutive Monday nights. 

AUTUMN SONATA  This iconic film was the only collaboration between cinema’s two great Bergmans – Ingmar and Ingrid. Shows Mon, Oct 15 with introduction by Mal Vincent.

SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT One of cinema’s great erotic comedies. Shows Monday, Oct 22 with introduction by Tim Cooper, Naro Video.

WILD STRAWBERRIES  The 1957 film catapulted Bergman to the forefront of world cinema. Shows Monday, Oct 29 with introduction by Mal Vincent.

DAVID HOCKNEY AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY OF ARTS  

Widely considered Britain’s most popular artist, David Hockney is a global sensation with exhibitions in London, New York, Paris and beyond. He is now entering his 9th decade and spends most of his later life in Los Angeles. Shows Tues, Oct 16 in the ongoing series ‘Exhibition On Screen’.

TAWAI: A Voice from The Forest  

Tawai is the term that the pre-agricultural hunter gatherers of Borneo use to describe their inner feelings of connection to all of nature. This philosophical meditation on human culture on the edge of the precipice is from British explorer and filmmaker Bruce Parry (BBC’s Tribe). Shows Wed, Oct 17 with discussion.

FAHRENHEIT 11/9  

Michael Moore declares Trump to be “the last president of the United States” and then goes on to defend his position. Reversing the title of his  top-grossing 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11,  Moore compiles evidence since Trump’s election to suggest a disaster comparable to the Sept. 11th attacks. Shows Wed, Oct 24 with discussion.

THE PUBLIC IMAGE IS ROTTEN  

After the breakup of the Sex Pistols and the death of Sid Vicious, band leader John Lydon, aka John Rotten, formed Public Image Ltd (PiL). This ground-breaking band has lived on nearly 15 times as long as his first band. Now living in Los Angeles, Lydon has persevered in one of the strangest and controversial careers in music.  Shows Tuesday, Oct 30.

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW

This annual Halloween film event features the live Fishnet cast on the Naro stage. Two shows on Halloween, Wed, Oct 31.

WEED THE PEOPLE: The Pharming of Cannabis

Filmmakers Abby Epstein and Ricki Lake take an unflinching look at the underground world of herbal medicine, where patients become experts on their own conditions and spend thousands of dollars on illegal cannabis medicines that are concocted in their own suburban kitchens. Shows Wed, Nov 14 with speakers from Virginia NORML and discussion.