BRISTOL, Va. — A longtime advocate of medicinal uses for marijuana, U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said he won’t support decriminalization of the drug.
Griffith, who is seeking his fifth two-year term representing Southwest Virginia’s 9th District, made those comments during a meeting this week with the Bristol Herald Courier editorial board. He is running against Democrat Anthony Flaccavento of Abingdon in the Nov. 6 general election.
“Decriminalization is probably going to happen, but I’m not for it,” Griffith said. “The days of putting people in jail for 30 years for small amounts of marijuana is silly. I’ll grant that went way too far. If we decriminalize, we’re doing several things wrong. I blame the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] and both administrations — the last one more because they wouldn’t enforce the laws that exist, and the DEA wouldn’t reschedule it so we could use it for medical purposes.”
The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which is a substance with a great likelihood of abuse — the same category as heroin, LSD and methamphetamine.
Griffith began supporting using cannabis in certain medical treatment while he was in the Virginia House of Delegates, and he remains a supporter. Virginia has the nation’s oldest medicinal marijuana law, for treating cancer and glaucoma, which was expanded to include CBD oil and THC-A oil.
“If we’re going to decriminalize it, shouldn’t we know what the long-term impacts are on the brain? There are impacts we just don’t know what they are,” Griffith said. “This causes me great concern. We really don’t know the long-term effects, how it affects people. If you already have a slight disorder, does it magnify it? We have nothing, and I blame both Republican and Democrat DEA administrations for not allowing more research.”
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican from Maryland, introduced a bill to allow research on marijuana impacts, and Griffith signed on as a co-patron.
A bill in the U.S. Senate would decriminalize the drug at the federal level and allow individual states to make decisions.
Griffith said much of the push to decriminalize marijuana is coming from states like Colorado, which have already legalized its recreational use.
“If we’re not going to follow the law as it exists at the federal level, maybe it shouldn’t be a federal issue,” Griffith said. “That’s a legitimate argument, but if you’re not going to enforce the federal law, then you need to change the federal law.
“I prefer we not decriminalize it, but I think it’s coming. I probably won’t vote for it, but I won’t be on the floor barricading the gates, so to speak. I fear we’re going to send the wrong message that this stuff is safe and the federal government has approved it as being safe and reasonable product to use, and we’re not there.”
Challenger Flaccavento said he’s heard a “remarkably strong reception” from district voters who support decriminalizing marijuana, which he supports.
“I thought it was an issue strictly for the liberal end of the district or for young folks. It seems to be it [support] is pretty broad,” he said.
Griffith said he’s introduced multiple bills supporting medical marijuana.
“I believe in it. I believe it’s got value,” Griffith said. “We’re using opioids; we’re using barbiturates. … I fear the dangers of marijuana. We know the dangers of those two substances — they’re far worse than marijuana. I’m a big proponent of using it medicinally.”
During the meeting, Griffith also discussed the federal response to the opioid crisis, which has been especially prevalent in Appalachia. He serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which deals with health care and drug issues, as well as subcommittees on health and oversight.
“There is so much blame to go around on this stuff,” he said. “We just sent letters to the big pharma companies. We’re trying to find out what did they know and when did they know it. We’ve done the distributing companies. … We brought in five of the biggest distributors of opioids, and four of them said they didn’t have any idea. One of them admitted liability and said they should have done a better job. McKesson paid a $150 million fine. … We are really going after this to see what we can do to stop it.”
Last year, McKesson Corp. paid a $150 million fine as part of a deal with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Justice regarding McKesson’s monitoring and reporting of suspicious controlled substance orders, which dated back to 2009.
In his position paper, Flaccavento said the crisis is “destroying lives and families and hurting local economies.” He supports efforts at all levels that focus on prevention and treatment, including drug courts to assist recovering addicts, reducing excessive opioid prescriptions and adding penalties for unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies that don’t fully advise health care providers about their products’ potential for addiction.
Griffith said lawmakers are also looking for more response from another federal agency — the Food and Drug Administration.
“The FDA has been a little slow to realize we have a serious problem, and they need to be looking hard for less addictive pain relievers — which may include marijuana,” Griffith said. “If you told me I was going to be in a lot of pain and I had a choice between marijuana — and I don’t use any substances that affect the brain unless it’s prescription, I’ve never drunk alcohol and never smoked marijuana — but if you told me I had a choice between an opiate and smoking marijuana … I don’t want to mess up my lungs, but I would smoke the marijuana before I would take the opiate.”
Griffith acknowledged that some patients have done OK with opioid pain medications, and many need them because of chronic pain, but the country needs a “better solution.”