The 2017 Virginia Cannabis Conference got off to an early morning start, with the motivated group of marijuana reform advocates who had gathered at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Downtown Richmond ready to take on the world…. or at least the Commonwealth.
This group’s goal was to learn how to change the stereotypes surrounding marijuana, how to break the stigma of using marijuana for medical purposes and otherwise, and, most important, how to effect change at a grassroots level.
The event got kicked off just before the planned 9:00 am, with a vendor, Hemp Champion, set up to sell hemp products, and Virginia NORML had products and memorabilia for sale to support the organization. Most interesting was the silent auction, which was auctioning everything from tie-dye hoodies to gift bags with dab kits and other smoking tools. Good prices. I had to place a bid on one of the less risqué items. Networking “Power Hour” was off to a great start. Excited, small groups buzzed with conversation around the sales tables, the hotel’s breakfast bar, and the registration table.
At 10:00 a.m., the actual conference got started, with the MC corralling people from the lobby to the conference room. The 2017 Virginia Cannabis Conference was hosted by Virginia NORML, with the microphoned manned by the legendary Russ Belville. He got the conference started with a presentation about reform efforts in 2017, and framing marijuana in the age of Donald J. Trump. Nomination choices were highlighted, cough – Sen. Sessions – cough, and the inability for Americans to rely on their federal government for a positive atmosphere for marijuana law changes. But change can still be driven at a state level.
The key takeaway, in addition to mountain of facts and figures, was how to frame the topic of marijuana law reform to a variety of audience across the ideological spectrum.
Russ Belville was followed up by a guest speaker: John Hudak, fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of Marijuana: a Short History. Supported by scholarly research and a specialty in Presidential Studies, Mr. Hudak broke down the current state of marijuana policy in the United States. A few highlights included the fact the 2016 was the most successful year ever for marijuana reform efforts. He pointed out the power of grassroots efforts, and the importance of taking notice and getting involved with the upcoming election for Virginia Governor and Attorney General. Pinnacle political positions such as these will have a large impact on reform efforts in Virginia.
The current political discontent on both sides of the political spectrum could serve as a powerful motivator to communities to support criminal justice reform efforts, particularly marijuana.
Following a short break, a panel discussion opened NORML leaders and the speaker to questions from the gathered group. The panel included Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, Justin Strekal and Kevin Mahmalji, directors at national NORML, and John Hudak. Issues discussed included tips for effective advocacy and some stories of success. Kevin Mahmalji then dove deeper into specifics of being a successful advocate by utilizing institutions and organizations that are already in place, such as local political parties, media outlets, and civic organizations. In addition to rallies and writing pithy blog posts, sometimes you must get out there, shake hands, and answer the tough questions to citizens, leaders, and lawmakers.
At 2:00 p.m., the first of the legislators arrived. Delegate Glenn Davis (R) of Virginia Beach came to speak to the group regarding his upcoming bill, HB 1637. This bill would give patients with Crohn’s disease an affirmative defense for the use of CBD/THC-A oil for treatment of their condition. In addition to telling the story of his conversion in thinking about marijuana-derived medicines, he also discussed how his mind was changed. This change was through the advocacy and involvement of a patient who had a powerful story of how she was helped with medical treatments derived from cannabis.
Del. Davis also opened himself up for questions, and gave honest answers that showed Virginia lawmakers, even Republicans, can be won over through grassroots advocacy and personal success stories of treatments.
After Del. Davis was finished, Delegate Steve Heretick (D), representing parts of Norfolk and Portsmouth, arrived to speak. His time started off as a lecture; speaking from his experience as a former federal prosecutor. He broke down the history of marijuana prohibition and highlighted some of the collateral consequences of marijuana convictions. Del. Heretick was very much in favor of reforming the laws surrounding marijuana prohibition. In fact, he introduced HB 1906, which would decriminalize simple possession of marijuana to be treated as a civil infraction and be punishable by a citation and fine. Unfortunately, this bill will not pass this session because of the Crime Commission Study of Decriminalization called for by Rep. Sen. majority leader Thomas Norment. A key consideration, he noted, was the unintended consequences of the law, and the need to think about possible negative results from the change in the law to allow access to marijuana.
The 2017 Cannabis Conference wrapped up with some discussion of what has worked in various Virginia localities. Again, highlighting personal connections to cannabis or medical treatments brings regular people a more concrete example rather than abstract facts and figures. The group of over sixty (60!) had been lectured, given facts, and the group in turn asked questions and provided comments. The only remaining event was a dinner and social hour at the nearby Belle James, where the leaders of the group and some conference attendees unwound after a day of information absorption. The interactions and lessons from the day would be the ammunition needed to fight the good fight to bring change to Virginia’s marijuana law.