In 2016, Willie Nelson snapped a photo with Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe on a tour bus. At that time, no one thought that the seemingly normal and harmless backstage photo op would soon lead to a small political blunder.
The photo was taken during Nelson’s Farm Aid festival. The annual festival was established to support family farmers. He set up a shop at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Virginia. Governor McAuliffe decided to check out the event by giving a quick visit, oblivious to the things he would encounter if he decides to swing by Willie Nelson’s tour bus. The governor went straight backstage to spend time with Nelson, the founder of the event. Looking closely into Nelson and McAuliffe’s picture, a ¼-ounce can of Nelson’s cannabis line, Willie’s Reserves, along with an ashtray and a grinder, were all sitting on the table between the country singer and Virginia governor. An ‘S’ could also be made out in the snapped photo of the strain’s canister. This indicates that it was a strain in the sativa species. Willie’s Reserves is grown and sold in Colorado and Washington. Both states have legalized marijuana.
McAuliffe is known in Virginia as a huge oppose of marijuana use. Brian Coy, his spokesperson, explained to the media that the governor was not aware there was marijuana at the time that the picture was taken. “He was not and still is not aware of whatever was on the table or anywhere around him and wouldn’t know marijuana or related paraphernalia if it walked up and shook his hand.”
When the photo surfaced on social media, many local marijuana activists slammed McAuliffe for the discrepancy between his interaction with Nelson and his opposition to the legalization of marijuana. In 2013, there have been outcries of racial injustice after about 47 percent of marijuana arrests involved black, while whites were only three times less likely to be arrested for possession of mary jane.
Executive director of Virginia National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Jenn Michelle Pedini expressed, “No one would like Willie Nelson to be arrested, or the governor—who unlike thousands of Virginians this year—was not arrested for sitting with another privileged white man with marijuana and paraphernalia in their presence. And I think that’s the biggest disconnect. Even if the governor wants to admit his willful ignorance to this non-toxic substance that thousands of his constituents consume on a regular basis, if he is so ignorant of it, then he probably should not be dictating policies on stuff that he doesn’t appear to understand.”
McAuliffe had previously spoken support for medical marijuana. In 2015, the governor signed into law legislation which decriminalized some derivatives of medical marijuana for epilepsy treatment. However, legalization of recreational marijuana is what McAuliffe has been resisting. His legislation to decriminalize possession of marijuana failed to go past the state’s subcommittee earlier in 2016.