FORT LEE, Va. – Even though Virginia legislators passed a law approving the use of recreational marijuana effective July 1, post leaders here want community members to understand it’s not allowed on base and still can’t be used by military personnel or civilian workers.
“To protect people’s careers, we want the following points to be very clear,” emphasized Col. Karin L. Watson, garrison commander. “Fort Lee is a federal installation. The new state law does not apply to anyone inside our fenceline, to include family members in housing areas and visitors such as our veteran community, delivery drivers and others. Military personnel and civilian employees must follow the same government regulations prohibiting the use of illegal substances, which marijuana is still considered to be on a federal level.”
Capt. Stuart Ham, a military justice advisor with the Combined Arms Support Command Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, offered the legal perspective.
“Fort Lee is a property of the federal government and federal law governs the conduct of all people within its boundaries,” he wrote in an email response to the Garrison Public Affairs Office. “This includes civilian employees, dependents, contractors and anyone who crosses through the gates. Those who violate federal laws are subject to prosecution. This is true even if the surrounding state or local governments allow the conduct that the federal government prohibits.”
Backing that up is Title 21 U.S.C. Section 844, which prohibits the possession of controlled substances, including marijuana. Penalties include a maximum of 12 months in prison and a $100,000 fine. Simply possessing a small amount of marijuana, according to Hamm, could lead to prosecution under this law.
“Civilian contractors and other employees should understand that their employment may require them to refrain from consuming marijuana,” Hamm also noted.
Elaborating on that point, Katina Oates from the Fort Lee Alcohol and Drug Control Office referenced Executive Order 12564, “Drug-Free Federal Workplace,” which mandates that federal employees are “required to refrain from the use of illegal drugs” on- and off-duty.
“Drug involvement can raise questions about an individual's reliability, judgment and trustworthiness – calling into doubt the ability or willingness to comply with laws, rules and regulations, thus indicating continued employment might not promote the efficiency or protect the integrity of the service,” Oates wrote in her email response.
She further advised that heads of agencies “have an obligation to inform their workforce” that legislative changes at the state level, including the District of Columbia, do not alter federal law or executive branch policies regarding marijuana. Simply put, amplifying the message and ensuring it’s clearly understood is essential to keeping Team Lee members from unknowingly making a mistake that could jeopardize their career.
Continuing the discussion, Hamm reminded service members – including National Guardsmen and Reservists on activated status – that they are subject to the Uniformed Code of Military Justice 24/7; even when they are off work and out of uniform.
“This means that service members cannot use or possess marijuana at any time,” he emphasized. “The UCMJ applies to all places on- or off-post. Therefore, a Soldier hypothetically could be court-martialed for smoking marijuana on the moon.”
Diving a bit deeper into the legal discussion, Hamm said the government does not view “possession” any differently than the “use” of marijuana. Both could lead to criminal prosecution. If the substance is found in a vehicle during a random inspection, such as those periodically conducted at Fort Lee gates, the driver won’t likely succeed in arguing the marijuana is not theirs or that they never used it because items in a vehicle are typically considered to be in the driver’s possession.
“So, Team Lee really needs to understand how serious this could be,” Hamm reiterated. “If caught, there’s little chance of talking your way out of it. The federal laws are very clear.”
Hamm also briefly discussed prescriptions for medical marijuana, which are likewise not recognized as legal at the federal level and could not be used as a defense against federal prosecution. Listed as a “Schedule 1” drug under the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is categorized as having “no medical value with high potential for abuse.” (Further details at cdc.gov/marijuana.) Since Fort Lee is governed by federal law, it must prohibit possession and usage on the installation even if prescribed by a doctor.
To ensure Team Lee members are fully informed about the recreational marijuana law enacted by Virginia, here’s a quick overview.
The legislation allows state residents 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of the substance. Those caught carrying more than that amount, up to a pound, will face a $25 fine. Possessing over a pound is considered a felony, with maximum possible sentences of 10 years in prison and/or a fine of $250,000. Underage individuals caught with the drug could similarly be fined $25 and would be required to enter a substance abuse treatment and education program.
The new law prohibits using/sharing the drug in public. Virginians also need to be mindful of transporting it in the passenger compartment of their vehicle – anything but “originally sealed sales packaging” is considered an “open container,” automatically leading to the presumption by law enforcement that it was recently consumed.