Any voter in Virginia looking for a candidate friendly to drug policy reform should look no farther than Robert Sarvis. The Libertarian Party nominee for the state’s gubernatorial race has chosen drug law reform as one of four major issues to highlight on his website, and makes it clear that he understands the far-reaching social harms of the war on drugs. These include enrichment of organized crime, by the same mechanism which operated under alcohol prohibition, as well as the militarization of our police forces and an accompanying erosion of civil liberties. The drug war also continues to be a major contributor to long-term poverty and unemployment, by giving those arrested on drug charges criminal records, diminishing their often already limited job prospects.
Sarvis would legalize marijuana under a similar regulatory model to that currently in place for alcohol, putting him in line with what recent polls estimate to be 52% of voters nationwide, and 40% of voters in Virginia. For other currently prohibited drugs, he endorses the decriminalization policy currently on display in nations such as Portugal. The Portuguese drug policy, under which drug sales remain prohibited but drug possession for personal use is not treated as a criminal offense, has been a resounding success. The European nation has demonstrated significant and lasting decreases in drug-related harms, such as overdose deaths and the spread of STDs, following the policy’s enactment in 2001.
Sarvis would have opposed the Virginia ban on salvia divinorum, a relatively obscure plant native to the Oaxaca region of Mexico and known for its unusual psychedelic effects. Although it was never particularly popular, nor was it ever conclusively linked with any serious harms, the herb has been the victim of yet another wave of anti-drug hysteria.
Numerous foreign countries and US states have banned the possession and distribution of salvia since the turn of the century, often citing entirely speculative or even unspecified dangers from its use. In a typical example of the depth of drug knowledge among those calling for its prohibition, one New Zealand member of parliament calling for such a measure fell victim to a recurrent hoax dating back to 1989. National Party Member of Parliament Jacqui Dean wrote a letter to the country’s Associate Minister of Health, asking for their views on banning the “drug” dihydrogen monoxide, otherwise known as H2O.
Although US federal efforts to ban the plant in 2002 were not successful, the Virginia General Assembly passed HB 21 on a 98-0 vote in January of 2008, banning the main active ingredient in the plant, salvinorin A. Arrests for salvia have been rare nationwide, as is the use of the drug, so the enforcement of the law is not likely to be a major drain on resources or a significant boon to organized crime. However, the persistent willingness of lawmakers to prohibit substances based on speculation is an embarrassment to this state.
Rob Sarvis would also push to reform asset forfeiture laws with regard to drugs in Virginia, so that no one’s property could be seized without them being first convicted of such a crime. Current policy, first brought into widespread use as part of the war on drugs, allows civil forfeiture actions to be brought against property without the owner even being accused of a crime, let alone convicted. Such actions are difficult to defend against. The plaintiff is held to a lower standard of proof than would be required in a criminal trial. The burden of proof is on the property owners to demonstrate their personal innocence if they hope to retain the “guilty” property, which they are not often able to do. Such laws have resulted in an average of approximately $7.3 million dollars worth of seizures per year from 1996-2007, and this estimate applies to local law enforcement agencies in Virginia alone.
The proceeds of forfeiture are mostly retained by the same police departments who targeted the assets. This provides a strong incentive for police to make questionable accusations of drug activity in order to seize property for their own use. This is only one way in which current drug policy encourages corruption among law enforcement, and in which scaling back drug war policies would contribute to a healthier relationship between law enforcement and the communities they police.
While Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cucinelli has confirmed his own support for a state’s right to determine its own marijuana policy, he deliberately stopped short of actually endorsing any such reform in his own state. Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe has completely avoided the issue to date. Robert Sarvis is the only candidate in the race to commit to taking steps toward more sensible drug policy in Virginia.
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