Virginia will soon be for pot smokers too.

Virginia will soon be for pot smokers too.

A recent Gallup poll showed that nearly 70% of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, the highest it’s ever been. In 1969, the first year Gallup asked the question, only 12% did.

This past Monday, New Jersey Gov. Philip Murphy signed legislation legalizing the plant, joining 14 other states. Garden State voters approved legalization of the drug on Election Day with 67% of the vote.

And on Saturday, just 5 days after New Jersey, Virginia became the 16th state to legalize the plant. Virginia joins Illinois and Vermont as the only states who have passed legislation to legalize, tax and regulate recreational marijuana through the legislature. The 13 other states, and the District of Columbia legalized via the ballot box.

Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to sign the bill, which he introduced last month. But when will the law take effect?

Produced by Kurt Gardinier


  • Erik Altieri Executive director, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws; @NORML
  • Matthew Johnson Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; @Drug_Researcher


  • 12:00:16

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast it's Kojo For Kids with Author Hena Khan. But first a recent Gallup poll showed that nearly 70 percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, the highest it's ever been. In 1969, the first year Gallup asked this question only 12 percent did. This past Monday, New Jersey Governor Philip Murphy signed legislation legalizing the plant joining 14 other states. And on Saturday, so did Virginia making it the 16th state to legalize marijuana and the first state to do so in the South.

  • 12:00:53

    KOJO NNAMDIVirginia joins Illinois and Vermont as the only states that have legalized via legislation rather via the ballot box or referendum as 13 other states have done. Governor Ralph Northam is expected to sign the bill, which he introduced last month, but when will the law take effect? Joining us now is Erik Altieri, the Executive Director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Erik Altieri, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:21

    ERIK ALTIERIThanks so much for having me.

  • 12:01:23

    NNAMDIErik, after going through the specifics of this bill, what will legalization look like in the Commonwealth of Virginia?

  • 12:01:30

    ALTIERIWell, ultimately, currently the enactment data as you said isn't until January 2024. But once that date occurs -- or hopefully we want to push that up a little if we can, it will look like it does in all the other states that have done so. We'll have a regulated market with stores that have to get licensed that have to check ID, can only sell to individuals over 21 with tested product of known quantity and will no longer arrest adults for a simple possession of a plant.

  • 12:01:59

    NNAMDIBut why the long delay? It won't be legal as you said we've said until 2024. Why not?

  • 12:02:06

    ALTIERIWell, initially a lot of this comes around how they're going to regulate marijuana particularly in the state. And that's going to involve setting up a new independent agency, the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority, that will oversee the regulations and govern the adult use market in the state. We do think that it is certainly largely unnecessary to push the legalization of possession out until 2024. But we do have a lot more chances here over the next several years including this year, with the governor or next year during the legislative session to continue to make those improvements to the bill because we want to see those arrests stop as soon as possible.

  • 12:02:45

    NNAMDILet me go Robert in Alexandria, Virginia who has a question about this. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:02:52

    ROBERTHello, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. So, yeah, on that subject I was just curious why is it going to take so long, because so many other states have already done this. So Virginia isn't forging new ground in this regard. Why can't we just look to other states? I feel like it should only take about six months to setup the regulatory control agency. And then like about another six months to actually distribute licenses. Thank you.

  • 12:03:16

    NNAMDIThank you very much for you call. Erik, I guess he shares the point of view of a lot of people on this issue that it shouldn't necessarily take that long, but as you've pointed out there will probably be opportunities in upcoming sessions of the legislature to change that.

  • 12:03:31

    ALTIERICorrect. And, you know, we do say that in all these new states as they come online there's no real reason to reinvent the wheel here. We have a lot of other states that have already done this. We've seen best practices. We've learned what works, what doesn't. That they can really follow that lead. But, you know, when we had the opportunity to make Virginia the first legalized state in the South to really bring these arrests fully to an end, this is a comprehensive bill that does just that.

  • 12:03:59

    ALTIERIAnd while we share a lot folks' general disappointment that legalization of possession is not getting enacted this year as we advocated for, we're going to keep fighting to move that date up as soon as possible. So we end the arrests, And then ultimately we do think as they go through the process of regulations, there will be some opportunity to try to move up retail sales as well.

  • 12:04:22

    NNAMDIGovernor Ralph Northam has championed legalization as a racial justice issue. But the Virginia ACLU is not happy with the bill saying in a statement, quoting here, "The Virginia General Assembly failed to legalize marijuana for racial justice. Lawmakers paid lip service to communities that have suffered decades of harm caused by the racist war on drugs with a legislation that falls short of equitable reform and delays justice." Erik, how does the legislation fall short of equitable reform as they suggest and what could be done to improve it?

  • 12:04:54

    ALTIERIWell, I don't want to speak entirely for the ACLU, but my understanding, much like we are, they're very disappointed that the legalization of personal possession is tied to the retail market. I think most advocates agree that is a largely unnecessary step to have. And we want to see that justice come sooner than later. We don't want to see justice delayed any further, because even though Virginia has decriminalized marijuana we still see racially disparate arrests and enforcement of those laws in the state.

  • 12:05:27

    ALTIERISo we need to see that prioritized, but there is a fair amount in this bill to light from a racial justice perspective including the expungement of records, which was passed as an additional measure, which will allow any individual with past marijuana arrests on their record to have that expunged and cleared so they no longer deal with the collateral consequences.

  • 12:05:47

    ALTIERIAnd then next year, when ultimately the retail regulations need to be authorized by a second vote, we're going to want to make sure that the tax funding goes to communities that were most harmed. That individuals who are from these marginalized communities most targeted by our war on marijuana stand to benefit from a legal market. So the fight is not over yet and we want to improve it where we can, but this is still a massive step forward in terms of justice in Virginia.

  • 12:06:16

    NNAMDIErik, since it maybe some time before Virginia's marijuana law -- bill goes into effect. Can you quickly walk us through the current laws in D.C., Maryland and Virginia?

  • 12:06:27

    ALTIERIAbsolutely. Well, in D.C. as of 2014, voters legalized possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and the cultivation of up to six plants. So that's completely legal for adults 21 and older. No fine, no crime, no nothing, completely legal. And they're still working there to implement a recreational retail market. But that is running into issues, because Congress oversees D.C.'s budget. In Virginia, on the other hand, last year they passed decriminalization of up to one ounce of marijuana. So that's simply a civil violation similar to a traffic ticket with a maximum fine of $25 for up to that one ounce. That will be the case until we can get the legalization bill enacted.

  • 12:07:12

    ALTIERIMaryland is still the most conservative in the region. It is decriminalization of up to 10 grams of marijuana. That would be civil offense with a fine of $100, no potential for incarceration or a criminal offense.

  • 12:07:27

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Dr. Matthew Johnson, a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Matthew Johnson, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:07:36

    MATTHEW JOHNSONMy pleasure.

  • 12:07:37

    NNAMDIThere's been debate about whether legalizing marijuana can help reduce the use of highly addictive opioids. What do we know about the medical effects of marijuana and what issues it can address?

  • 12:07:52

    JOHNSONYeah, there's a wide variety of conditions where the evidence supports either pretty substantially or, you know, more in the kind of early highly suggestive stage, but supports medical utility. And so it's clear that there are analgesic effects that are speaking to the opioid crisis. It's clear that cannabis and the cannabinoids it contains more indirectly affect the opioid system in a way that's not going to shut down your brain stem and make you stop breathing.

  • 12:08:27

    JOHNSONSo it's kind of a way to indirectly massage the opioid system, which accounts for its greater safety profile by far compared to opioids. So it's agreed that people, you know, can be using cannabis rather than opioids particularly for things like chronic pain. You're likely to see far less risk. And, you know, certainly there a number of other disorders where cannabis has also been -- where there's been evidence suggesting medical utility such as controlling nausea. That's one, and some suggestive evidence for certain psychiatric disorders.

  • 12:09:09

    NNAMDIFor many suffering from chronic illnesses, marijuana is a miracle drug for them. But no drug is perfect or without side effects. What are some, if you will, of the negative effects of using marijuana?

  • 12:09:23

    JOHNSONRight. So kind of at the top of the list, we do know that it's impairing. So it about doubles the risk of automobile accidents. Now a lot of folks will say, not as much as alcohol, and that's true. So being legally drunk is associated with about a 14 times likelihood of getting in a wreck. So two if far better than 14, but it's still double the odds. So that's not good.

  • 12:09:52

    JOHNSONWe also know, of course, everyone will know that it's associated with acute -- that is when someone is on it cognitive issues of verbal memory. You know, when someone is actually on cannabis they, for example, may not likely in certain situations perform as well in school as an example. There are some lingering cognitive effects that can last about a month for heavy users. Important to note that those are pretty small scale, though, like you're not going to pick this up from someone by just casual discourse with them. And it falls within the range that's considered acceptable for a wide variety of medications.

  • 12:10:32

    JOHNSONSo we always have to take risk-benefit ratio into account. I mean, we could have a conversation about the effects of caffeine that are negative and causing anxiety and insomnia and for people with severe cardiovascular risk. So those are a few of them. And there are some evidence emerging that there's some cardiovascular risk associated with chronic cannabis use for those who are vulnerable.

  • 12:10:55

    NNAMDIR.A. Scientist tweets, "Will there be rules against driving while impaired? I have seen Metro bus drivers come out of the Greenbelt station in a cloud of smoke and just hop on the bus." Erik Altieri, do you know what regulations are concerning Metro bus drivers?

  • 12:11:12

    ALTIERIMetro bus drivers certainly can't be impaired driving a Metro bus. In every single state including the ones where marijuana is legal it remains illegal to drive impaired. And much like other laws they vary a bit state to state whether it's a per say limit of THC in your blood, which is largely inaccurate or simply impairment testing. It will always be illegal to be impaired driving under the influence of marijuana just as it is under other pharmaceuticals or alcohol or even exhaustion. In states, you could still be penalized for that. So there's no attempt to legalize smoking marijuana and driving and being a risk on the road.

  • 12:11:53

    NNAMDIHere now is Ryan in Falls Church, Virginia. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:11:59

    RYANThank you, Kojo. I am a longtime alcohol user for about the past 25 years. And I'm in favor of legalizing marijuana across the board, because I think that it is a travesty that we criminalize marijuana when in fact alcohol is by far the more dangerous drug, and, you know, leads to thousands of deaths every year. And there's no proof that marijuana leads to any deaths. Yeah.

  • 12:12:32

    NNAMDIWe got to take a short break. We've already discussed the possible effect on driving. And Erik Altieri pointed out that you're not allowed to drive impaired under -- with any substance whatsoever. Going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:13:13

    NNAMDIWe're talking in the wake of Saturday's decision by the legislature in the Commonwealth of Virginia to legalize recreational marijuana. We're talking with Dr. Matthew Johnson, a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Johns Hopkins Medicine. And Erik Altieri, Executive Director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Here is Lilian in Alexandria, Virginia. Lilian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:13:38

    LILIANYes. I'm calling, because I oppose the legalization of recreational marijuana use in Virginia. There are some very profound side effects that I haven't heard discussed. People can become paranoid and angry and emotionally and verbally and physically abusive, and I'm interested to know what your guests say about that.

  • 12:14:02

    NNAMDII'll have both of my guests respond to that. First, you Erik Altieri, do we have enough studies to understand the effect of cannabis on the brain and body and that it could -- our caller says that it could cause people to be verbally abusive, etcetera?

  • 12:14:20

    ALTIERIWell, the fact is you can always know more. Marijuana is one of the most researched substances on the planet. There's over 30,000 published studies on PubMed that's, you know, where the official repository of medical studies that are peer reviewed are. There is almost is almost very little evidence certainly outside of some fringe cases to say marijuana makes people aggressive or abusive. In fact, in almost all documented cases it's exactly the opposite. It has more of a sedative effect and a relaxing effect on consumers. That's not to say that there won't always be people out there who have some issues using it. It's not necessarily for everyone, but the overwhelming majority of consumers do not show those types of impacts from use.

  • 12:15:09

    NNAMDIDr. Johnson, has anyone ever died from using marijuana? Has there ever been a marijuana overdose?

  • 12:15:16

    JOHNSONThere's never been a marijuana overdoes that we know of. Physiologically, so its direct effects on the body, cannabis is remarkably safe. And so its risks lie elsewhere. People have been impaired, for example, and gotten into accidents that have caused their death. And I mentioned briefly earlier, it maybe that for some people particularly vulnerable to heart disease that they may have -- that using cannabis would have, you know, triggered, put them at risk for a heart attack or stroke when they otherwise may not have had one. Those types of things are very hard to pin down.

  • 12:15:54

    JOHNSONYou can't, you know, look at any individual circumstance and say, yes, this was directly caused by, you know, cannabis and it wouldn't have happened regardless of cannabis. So I think it's overstated, you know, when folks say, like, no one has ever died from cannabis. But, you know, we can't say that about caffeine or any other substance. I would say in terms of the aggression something to note is there's certainly a well-documented cannabis withdrawal syndrome. And irritability is one of the symptoms that people who are daily users that then go without often will experience irritability.

  • 12:16:29

    JOHNSONBut the scientific data do not show any evidence for increased aggression caused by the administration of cannabis that's credible. You'll see studies showing a correlation between those who use cannabis are more likely to engage in this or that type of aggressive behavior. It seems that that's probably all a product of common pre-disposition. In other words, it's by definition or it has been illegal and to have a lot of, for example, young males who are the highest risk takers and who engage in this type of thing to both engage in aggression and engage in cannabis use. So those types of correlations really aren't convincing at all. You'd have to look to laboratory evidence.

  • 12:17:14

    NNAMDIHere is Teresa in Arlington, Virginia. Teresa, your turn.

  • 12:17:19

    TERESAHi. I just want to process that when I was younger I assisted in growing peyote and drawing peyote and marijuana. And it was all legal, because it was done for Indian tribes. I'm looking at the Virginia laws now and there's really no opportunity for the Black and brown community to participate in the economic benefits of growing or having a dispensary. What can be done, because our communities are the ones that are harmed the most. And it seems like this whole law is merely to help very wealthy companies, mostly white companies, to make more money off of the communities. Thank you.

  • 12:17:57

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Erik Altieri, there have been a lot of issues with diversity in the roll out of legal recreational marijuana, haven't there?

  • 12:18:09

    ALTIERIThere have and this has, you know, happened not just obviously in the potential to happen in Virginia, but in a number of other states that have legalized. And we're huge advocates of equity in the new legal market we can targeted these communities, Black and brown communities for decades and ravaged individuals' lives and the fabric of their very communities and not give them the leg up to benefit now that we're making it legal. And just let hedge fund managers, rich white folks and others take advantage of this market.

  • 12:18:41

    ALTIERISo we are very big in advocating for that in other states and putting that into implementation. And that's going to be a big part of what we're going to be doing in Virginia when it comes up for a second review next year in terms of retail regulations.

  • 12:18:54

    NNAMDIIndeed. Longstrangetrip tweets, "Wait until they see the tax revenue collected on recreational sales. It will magically no longer be the devil's weed just like that." Here is Megan in Fairfax, Virginia. Megan, your turn.

  • 12:19:10

    MEGANHi. I'm calling, because I'm very much in favor of being legalized. I had a 20 year old son who was definitely dealing with anxiety and depression. And it seems to be a growing problem among youth. And my son was -- got addicted to Xanax. I believe it was probably in high school and went on into college. I didn't realize this until probably a couple of years in. And he went through rehab he was gravitating back towards Xanax. And unfortunately September 30, 2019 in seeking Xanax he came into contact with Fentanyl and he is no longer.

  • 12:19:52

    MEGANAnd I just feel like, you know, marijuana would help him of cases of anxiety, high anxiety, depression. And also after this horrible tragedy -- before this happened and still now, you know, I have insomnia. And my daughter who lives in Seattle -- I got sisters in California, you know, they gave me a few edibles before. And then finally after about a week of like no sleep after this tragedy, I finally thought, okay. I'm going to take one. You know, and after a couple of hours it just allowed me some peace to sleep. And so I think there's so many positives to marijuana.

  • 12:20:27

    NNAMDIVery sorry about your son. And thank you very much for sharing your story with us, Megan. Here now is Charlotte in Falls Church, Virginia. Charlotte, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:20:39

    CHARLOTTEHi. I just want to ask, it's great that the states that -- you know, so many states are legalizing, but where does legalization stand at the federal level?

  • 12:20:48

    NNAMDIErik Altieri, marijuana is categorized as a federal schedule one drug putting it alongside drugs like heroine. That designation has been one of the biggest issues for many states. How do you regulate and tax marijuana when it's illegal at the federal level? And how does Virginia plan to do so?

  • 12:21:07

    ALTIERIWell, as we've seen, you know, since 2012 when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize thankfully the federal government has largely taken a hands-off approach, but that still creates all these issues with being a schedule one drug. Businesses can't have easy access to banking. There's taxation issues. There's some oversite issues. So our big mission at NORML has been to deschedule marijuana, remove it entirely from the Federal Controlled Substances Act, and then largely the federal government would regulate it as they do alcohol letting states setup their own patchwork of laws.

  • 12:21:40

    ALTIERIWe are closer than ever before to seeing that become a reality. Just last year for the first time in history, the full House of Representatives approved legislation that would fully deschedule marijuana and make this advance happen. Now that we're in a new session of Congress with a fully Democrat controlled Congress, we're feeling optimistic of our chances to once again pass the House and have a serious debate and potentially pass the Senate where we've seen Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has been an outspoken advocate of doing this, and just recently in the past couple of weeks announced his intention to introduce a new bill to do just that.

  • 12:22:19


  • 12:22:20

    ALTIERISo we're going to see a lot more movement at the federal level in the coming year or two.

  • 12:22:23

    NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left, Dr. Johnson, but same question to you. What are your thoughts on marijuana remaining a schedule one drug?

  • 12:22:30

    JOHNSONIt's just becoming absolutely untenable for cannabis even to remain in the Controlled Substances Act at all, for it to be scheduled in any schedule level. I think one of the real problems is by federally keeping our heads in the sand, we're actually not doing a good job in addressing some of the real problems that can come from cannabis use. You know, with states going in all sorts of different directions, with large lobbies being built up and, you know, we're going to be irrelevant at federal level and it's going to be too late by the time we do this.

  • 12:23:05

    NNAMDII'm afraid we have to take a break, because we've come to the end of this segment. Dr. Matthew Johnson, Erik Altieri, thank you both for joining us. When we come back, it's Kojo For Kids with Author Hena Khan. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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