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Activists Work to Reform Marijuana Laws in VA

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RICHMOND, Va. (WVIR) -

Nearly two years ago, Washington and Colorado voted to legalize the recreational sale and use of marijuana. Now, activists in other states - including right here in Virginia - are lending their voices to the push for legalization.

NORML is the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The organization has been around since 1970 and its mission is to end the penalties associated with marijuana prohibition, while creating a legal retail market for adult consumers.

"Virginia NORML is a group of citizens from around Virginia that are working to enact regulations around cannabis,” said Ed McCann, Virginia NORML policy director. "We want to take it from the black market to the taxed market, if you will,” said McCann.

Sabrina Fendrick, NORML's strategic partnership director, is an active member of the fight to decriminalize - then legalize - marijuana in Virginia.

"Just like we treat alcohol, we can treat marijuana the same way. We can talk to kids with honest, objective information, tell them how to use products responsibly when they are of age. It can be a perfectly acceptable component of our society, and to understand there is a difference between use and abuse,” said Fendrick.

Virginia NORML believes prohibition simply doesn't work – but that education and regulation do.

"We think regulations will do a lot of things. It will help keep it away from kids. Access is very widespread now under prohibition, but under regulations we've seen, in Colorado for example, youth use decrease,” said McCann.

Here in central Virginia, Albemarle County Chief of Police Steve Sellers believes a change is likely on the horizon.

"I've been in policing for 32 years, and at this point in my career, I think this is the most effort that I've seen towards legalization or decriminalization of marijuana in my career,” said Sellers.

Sellers has been working closely with police chiefs in Colorado. He says law enforcement officers in jurisdictions where marijuana has been legalized have learned valuable lessons.

"We want to learn, too, because we see the pendulum shifting a little bit, so we can be prepared if and when legalization occurs here,” said Sellers.

In working with police chiefs in Colorado, Sellers says there are three major problems they have faced. Sellers says the first problem is that there is currently no way to measure, enforce, or regulate the potency of marijuana. The second problem is a need for advanced training.

"The ability for law enforcement and the training for law enforcement to identify drug-impaired drivers is not to the same level as it is for alcohol-impaired drivers,” said Sellers.

The third challenge is effectively regulating privately-grown marijuana.

"It's change. Change is difficult. It's adapting to that change and getting in front of that change where I think the Colorado chiefs will say we didn't really have the opportunity to get in front of it and prepare for this and really think it through,” said Sellers.

Both Virginia NORMAL and Sellers agree that that change is on the way for Virginia.

"It's looking very good that decriminalization is on the horizon. I think that's the natural next step for this state. They could save millions of dollars in law enforcement expenses. They could put that money towards important, actual crimes and investigations,” said Fendrick.

"It takes Virginia a long time to change a law, I've seen. It takes years. Years of debate, years of public discussion. I don't see this happening overnight in Virginia, but as the Chief of Police, I'm fully in tune to the pendulum shifting and I'm thinking ahead and thinking about what the implications might be and what, if any, burdens are placed upon us,” said Sellers.

Within the next two months, Virginia lawmakers will hear an industrial hemp bill, a decriminalization bill, as well as medical cannabis bills during the General Assembly session – but Sellers and Virginia NORML directors agree full legalization in Virginia is likely years down the road.

For more on Virginia NORML, click here.