Dennis Rogers: NC should replace golden leaf with legal weed

A marijuana plant matures at a growing facility, in Denver. Colorado.
A marijuana plant matures at a growing facility, in Denver. Colorado. AP

I took a drive through Eastern North Carolina last week.

It was a melancholy sight.

Fields that once were covered in small tobacco plants in the spring were lying fallow, while the tools used to grow the golden leaf that made North Carolina famous were rusting away on roadsides.

Small towns that once bustled with tobacco money – places where I once lived, like Fair Bluff in Columbus County – lay dormant in the spring sunshine like old dogs waiting to die.

Just getting by

River walks, town museums and festivals are nice, but the once-vibrant heart has been stilled in these and dozens of other little towns. Even larger tobacco towns are just getting by. In Wilson, once billed as the “World’s Greatest Tobacco Market,” giant whirligigs twirl where a few years ago auctioneers, buyers and farmers brought life to dim and dusty warehouses.

Not all farmers have given up, of course. Some families have turned to agritourism, but roadside stands in the summer and corn mazes in autumn are hardly enough to replace the steady income that came from tobacco. Food crops are welcomed by those of us who prefer locally grown victuals, but the days when a family can live comfortably on 10 acres of tobacco are over.

Meanwhile, the legislature is struggling to balance the budget by cutting even more state spending. The result is that underpaid teachers are leaving by the busload, college tuitions are out of reach for ever more middle-class families and the infrastructure is crumbing.

While rural and small-town Eastern North Carolina is withering, Colorado raked in a smooth $7.7 million in January 2015 alone just from sales taxes on legalized marijuana. The Rocky Mountain State has half as many people as North Carolina, so imagine the tax haul if local folks could roll up a legal doobie on Saturday night.

Oh, but drugs are evil, you say. We in the South are too pure and puritan to allow such nasty goings on.

But hey, if you want to get high we’ll sell you booze by the gallon without a moment’s hesitation. North Carolina, which peddles all the hard liquor in the state, takes in more than $200 million a year from John Barleycorn. One of our little town’s two liquor stores just doubled in size so we can sell more booze and make even more money.

Our leaders have long cast a greedy eye toward crime. Bootleggers once made so much money selling ’shine that North Carolina itself got into the liquor business in 1935 when it opened the state’s first ABC store in Wilson.

Numbers running

The financial bedrock of the Mafia used to be the numbers racket. Hopeful poor folks in big cities could put a dime or a dollar down on their favorite three-digit number at corner stores, bars or barber shops. Numbers runners would collect the betting slips and cash at day’s end and see to it that the winners were paid. Organized crime made a bundle.

Now it’s called Powerball or MegaMillions. The same desperate poor folks are putting down the same dollars to buy a piece of the same elusive dream. They’re doing it at Harris Teeter, and The Godfather has been replaced by the legislature. And like crime bosses in those black-and-white movies, our rulers complain that the $3.5 billion the legal North Carolina numbers racket has bought in is not as much as they had hoped.

So why not do what other states have done and legalize the growing and sale of marijuana?

Think about it. We’ve got the perfect soil, the machinery, the barns for curing and the warehouses for growing and selling weed. We’ve even got underused cigarette factories ready to make store-bought joints. Set up an allotment program that favors small farmers, sell permits to grow pot, control retail sales through our ABC stores and you’ve got a new fortune for legislators to spend.

Let’s face it, we gave up the moral high ground a long time ago. If we’re going to encourage and profit from gambling and liquor, we might as well add marijuana to the list.

Maybe it’s time for the state to run the dope dealers out of town like we did the bootleggers and numbers runners and take over their lucrative business, too.