The big news in Virginia this week: Governor Terry McAuliffe doesn't know what weed is.
ICYMI, The Governor staged a quickie photo op with country legend Willie Nelson at last week’s Farm Aid concert. Sitting on the table, inches from the governor's arm, was a can of Nelson's own line of (legally grown) marijuana. Nelson’s wife alerted the world by tweeting out the picture with the caption, "UH-OH Trouble!"
The Governor's spokesperson, Brian Coy, responded to media requests by noting that McAuliffe had no idea what was in the container and hadn’t even noticed. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Coy said that the Governor "wouldn’t know marijuana or related paraphernalia if it walked up and shook his hand…. He's cool, but he’s not that cool."
I have no comment on the Governor's "coolness." But in fairness to him, it's not like Willie had a dime bag or a bong sitting out on the table. His line of packaged marijuana comes in a little container, kind of a like a tin of dip. But while the media and Twitterverse had a little laugh at the Governor's expense, it wasn’t McAuliffe's cluelessness that should be the story here; it's his hypocrisy.
Marijuana possession is illegal in Virginia, except for certain cases of patients with epilepsy. (They can be arrested, but not convicted, for possession.) While arrests for marijuana use are on the decline nationally, with some states implementing full legalization, Virginia's arrest rates have sharply increased over the last decade. McAuliffe has said in the past that he's open to medical marijuana, and signed a bill this year that might make it possible to manufacture THC oils for medicinal use. But he has drawn the line at making possession of the drug legal for adults.
For legalization advocates, this is a missed opportunity. One of the quirks of Virginia's electoral system is that Governors are basically limited to one term. (They can technically be re-elected after taking a break, although that hasn’t happened in 40 years.) As a result, each Governor is almost immediately a lame duck. This makes it hard for Governors to implement their agenda, but it also might free them up from re-election concerns.
McAuliffe, therefore, might be best situated to make a great contribution to the conversation about drug policy in Virginia. Certainly anyone who advocates for loosening draconian drug policies will invite attacks from the state's anti-drug warriors. So who better to take the hit than a one-term Governor?
It’s not hard to find evidence for decriminalization; the arguments are obvious and readily available. (Quick side note: Every year I assign my American Government students a "letter to a public official" on a topic of their choosing. Close to 20% of the students choose marijuana legalization, in part because of their -- <cough> demographic interest -- and in part because it's so easy to make an argument for it.)
Virginia is becoming younger and more diverse; it may not even be a swing state anymore. Recent polls suggest that seven out of ten Virginians support some form of legalization. Wouldn't this be a good time for that discussion to start?
Well, not so fast. To again be fair to the Governor, decriminalization would likely require action by the state legislature first. Last year, a few bills were introduced, including Delegate Mark Levine’s attempt to reduce punishment for possession to a simple civil fine; all of these died in committee.
Not only that, but we have a much more conservative General Assembly than the general population of Virginia. (Thanks, Elbridge!) I can tell you that even from occasionally hanging around the General Assembly during the legislative session, it was clear that decriminalization was going nowhere; the bills were essentially laughed at. ("Think we’ll see legalization pass this year?" I overheard one staffer chuckle to another in the elevator.)
Which brings us back to the Governor. The fact that he could sit just inches away from a can of Satan’s lettuce and not know it suggests the threat level involved here. (Critics also noticed how Willie, a privileged white guy, was not arrested while also pointing out the racial disparity in marijuana arrest figures in Virginia.) It's time for someone to make the case for rational drug policy - why not a recent survivor of a close encounter with one of America's best-known stoners?
McAuliffe might head up to DC if Hillary Clinton wins in November. But if not, he will still have a year of governing left. He could do worse than reconsidering his stance on Willie’s Reserve.