Harvey Morgan is down, but not out

Jennie Lynn Price

Capital News Service

A Virginia Republican with 32 years of distinguished service in the General Assembly and marijuana decriminalization legislation may not seem like an obvious pairing.

Delegate Harvey Morgan, R-Gloucester, would be the first to say otherwise.

“I’m a pharmacist. I’m not a young person. I’m considered relatively conservative, and I’m a Republican,” Morgan said. “I think if anybody can introduce a bill like that, it ought to be somebody in my category.”

Most legislators are afraid to introduce a bill decriminalizing marijuana, he said.

“They’re intimidated by it,” said the bow tie-wearing delegate.

Morgan’s bill, HB 1443, sought to shift the current punishment – a misdemeanor conviction – for simple marijuana possession to a civil penalty, but was passed by indefinitely in its subcommittee hearing.

“For the life of me, I do not understand why the committee wouldn’t accept it,” Morgan said.

This year’s proposal follows a similar, well-publicized push by Morgan during the 2010 legislative session — that bill also died in committee.

Under the current law, simple marijuana possession carries a $500 fine and a maximum of 30 days in jail. The charge goes on the offender’s permanent record and can act as a barrier to employment in many fields, including teaching and health-care professions.

A civil penalty would carry the same fine, but would eliminate the jail time and criminal conviction.

“It is insane for someone to be punished for the rest of his life for a mistake he made as a teenager,” Morgan said.

Decriminalization would also save the state money in the form of law enforcement costs, he said.

“Of all the drugs that are available — whether it be tobacco, alcohol or LSD — marijuana is the only drug that’s never caused a death by overdose,” Morgan said. “Even experimental rats — you can’t kill them with marijuana.”

Despite the attention he’s received for his efforts, Morgan is careful to point out that he is not an advocate of marijuana use.

“I’ve never used it,” he said. “I’m not seeking legalization, although many people who support my bill would like to see it legalized and taxed to be a source of revenue, as oppose to a huge expense, as it is now.”

Initially, Morgan said he felt trepidation about introducing the bills, but decided to stick to his convictions.

“I thought it was the right thing to do, and I still think so,” he said.

Morgan may continue to face opposition to his cause in the General Assembly, but elsewhere he has found reception to decriminalization warming.

“I was overwhelmed,” he said. “For the last year, everywhere I go, people come up to me and say, ‘You’re doing the right thing.’”

Delegate Morgan, 80, chairs the Commerce and Labor Committee and has represented the counties of Gloucester, Mathews, Essex, King and Queen, King William and Middlesex since 1980. He plans to reintroduce his bill during a future legislative session.

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