Comment

When might NC go to pot?

March 8, 2014 

Polarization and gridlock create the impression of a nation stuck, but beneath the frozen political machinery cultural and demographic currents are shifting dramatically.

The most obvious is the speed with which the nation is changing its mind about same-sex marriage. The next big sea change may be in attitudes about legalizing marijuana. Opposition to easing laws on marijuana has gone up in smoke in Colorado and Washington state. Last week, the Washington, D.C. city council voted to decriminalize small quantities of pot, joining 17 states. Since California voters approved the medical use of marijuana in 1996, 19 more states have followed. More than a dozen states are weighing doing the same this year.

Efforts to ease marijuana laws or legalize sales for medical or general use reflect a growing consensus that marijuana causes more problems for government and people when its possession and use are criminally prohibited. People’s lives get sidetracked by arrests for marijuana possession, and governments must spend money to enforce the laws and jail offenders.

Now there’s a new force that could break through the remaining resistance: tax revenue. Colorado Gov. John W. Hickenlooper announced last month that legal sales of marijuana would produce tax revenue of $134 million the coming fiscal year.

Whether North Carolina would be willing to make marijuana a legal crop is unclear. The state’s history and the conservative politics of the current state leadership weigh against it. North Carolina was one of the last states to approve a lottery, and it now seems likely that it will be the last state to have passed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

On the other hand, North Carolina has a long and lucrative history of growing another controversial plant: tobacco. And there’s already a marijuana-growing industry in North Carolina, albeit an illegal one. A sense of its scale can be gotten from law enforcement efforts. The state’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program destroyed 8,480 plants last year, with a value of $1,500-$2,000 per plant.

And support for easing North Carolina’s marijuana laws is rising. A Public Policy Polling survey in January found 63 percent of the state’s voters favor the legal use of marijuana for medical purposes. Outright legalization was favored by 42 percent, up from 39 percent in 2013. Nationally, A CNN poll in January found 55 percent approved legalizing marijuana.

In North Carolina, a test could come as early as this spring when the General Assembly convenes for a short session. State Rep. Kelly Alexander (D-Mecklenburg) plans to reintroduce a bill seeking to make marijuana legal for medical purposes. Alexander has pushed to relax marijuana laws for several years, including introducing a bill to reduce penalties for marijuana possession. He plans to introduce the measure again in the 2015-16 long session.

With conservative Republicans running the legislature, his medical marijuana bill didn’t get far.

“The last time it got all of a 10- to 15 minute-hearing before it got an unfavorable report,” he said. But Alexander is convinced that attitudes toward marijuana are softening in the state.

In the General Assembly, Alexander said he is finding that legislators who wouldn’t touch legalizing marijuana “with a 10-foot pole” are now willing to discuss his proposals and consider co-sponsoring his bills.

Changes in attitudes toward marijuana may appear to be coming swiftly, but Alexander said it has been an incremental process. Penalties have slowly been reduced, medical marijuana has gained acceptance one state at a time and now two states are pioneering legalization.

“When you back up and look at it, it’s a trend,” he said. “Each thing is a brick, and after a while you have a wall.”

Meanwhile, over at the N.C. Tobacco Growers Association, there’s interest in any legal cash crop that could offset the state’s losses in tobacco production.

Graham Boyd, the group’s executive vice president, starts into the subject with a lighthearted declaration: “I have no knowledge of how they grow marijuana. Make the record reflect that.”

But Boyd said tobacco farmers would be well-suited to expand into a crop that’s becoming more accepted even as tobacco smoking is increasingly banned. Tobacco farmers are familiar with producing a regulated crop.

“If it’s a controlled system of production, not unlike alcohol, then it would be logical that the government would want a network of farm producers who are familiar with a quota system of production,” he said. “With tobacco farmers, that’s our bailiwick.”

In time and with enough marijuana tax revenues to be had, it might happen. North Carolina may convert from Golden Leaf to the leaf of gold.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at nbarnett@newsobserver.com, or 919-829-4512.

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