A survey of some of North Carolina’s most influential people in politics, business and society found that many of them support ending the criminalization of marijuana.
The extent of their support varied. Some said even though other states have started allowing weed, North Carolina should keep it illegal. Others said possession of small amounts should be decriminalized — meaning it wouldn’t be a crime anymore but could still mean a fine, like a traffic ticket. Others supported either fully legalizing marijuana or legalizing it for medical use only.
The News & Observer, The Herald-Sun and The Charlotte Observer have been asking 60 well-connected people around the state a series of questions several times a month. The newest topic was criminal justice. In addition to marijuana, the Influencers were also asked to weigh in on the topics of gun control, racial bias and criminal justice reforms that state leaders should be focusing on.
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Former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue said marijuana should be legal for medical use, and that recreational possession should be decriminalized. Former Republican Gov. Jim Martin said marijuana should remain illegal, with no exceptions. Two other former governors, Republican Pat McCrory and Democrat Mike Easley, both said the state needs to launch a public health campaign about marijuana before doing anything else.
“First, we need to educate the public on long term addiction, safety and mental health issues related to all drugs including marijuana,” McCrory said.
Business leaders were more pro-marijuana than some of their political counterparts. Former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl said decriminalizing marijuana is the single biggest thing North Carolina could do to reduce crime, and the presidents of the Charlotte and Asheville chambers of commerce, Bob Morgan and Kit Cramer, both said the state should legalize and tax it.
Others in the survey spoke of the racial implications of marijuana laws, which are often unevenly enforced by the police. Numerous scientific studies have found that white and black people report using marijuana and other drugs at similar rates, yet black people are significantly more likely to be arrested and to be incarcerated for marijuana specifically, as well as for drug crimes in general.
“The criminalization of marijuana possession is the equivalent of a throw down gun that the police can use when it is convenient to remove people they consider undesirable,” said James Coleman, a professor at Duke University School of Law, where he leads the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility. “If that was not the case, most arrests likely would take place on college campuses around the state, rather than poor minority neighborhoods.”
There wasn’t 100 percent agreement on the marijuana question. Pearl Burris-Floyd, the only black female Republican on the UNC System Board of Governors, said that “I would not support the legalization of marijuana because the use of this drug would not be limited to medical use.”
But other Republicans said they would support marijuana decriminalization, because of either its medical uses or the simple fact that keeping it on the black market drives many other crimes. Decriminalizing marijuana “would reduce the incentive for criminal gangs to smuggle illegal drugs into the U.S. and reduce over-zealous prosecution of drug laws,” said Paul Valone, a prominent gun rights activist. “The fact is that prohibition didn’t work for liquor, it isn’t working for drugs, and it won’t work for guns.”
Madison Shook, a GOP fundraiser, said veterans have found marijuana useful for treating PTSD, and that the government could better use the millions of dollars spent policing and prosecuting marijuana crimes on more pressing issues, like the opioid epidemic.
Other Influencers said allowing marijuana for medical uses like pain management could kill two birds with one stone by helping cut down on the number of people in prison while also lessening opioid addiction problems that can often start with legally prescribed painkillers. Additionally, some said the state should expand Medicaid — which would help hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians get health care, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“Closing the insurance coverage gap is a crucial step in addressing the opioid epidemic,” said Dr. Laura Gerald, a pediatrician who is also the president of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. “Addiction should be viewed as an illness that needs treatment, and insurance coverage, particularly Medicaid for those living in extreme poverty, is just plain sensible.”
Medicaid expansion, however, is a highly politicized issue because it involves Obamacare and larger philosophical questions of when the government should pay for health care. The state legislature has already shot down the idea.
But among the Influencers in the survey, there were some areas of bipartisan consensus on solutions to the opioid crisis.
Cracking down on the doctors and pharmaceutical companies who are making the problem worse was a common theme. So was providing more jobs in rural areas — where addiction problems are worse than in urban areas — and providing more funding for things like rural health clinics and diversion programs that addicts could be sent to instead of prison.
“Get tough on physicians, and pharmacies,” said Richard Vinroot, a Republican lawyer and the former mayor of Charlotte. “I’m certain most are careful and professional, but prosecution of prescription ‘abusers’ will send loud and clear messages to all concerned with regard to this national nightmare.”
Guns and crime
The survey also asked about what the state should do to cut down on crime and incarceration, and what — if anything — leaders should do to adopt “reasonable gun laws ... that would actually help reduce gun crime.”
On the gun question, the answers broke down predictably along party lines. Many of the liberal-leaning Influencers said the state should make it harder for people to get guns by having stricter background checks or requiring prospective gun-buyers to pass a firearms safety class first, similar to how drivers must pass a test for a driver’s license. Some also called for outright bans on automatic weapons and/or semi-automatic assault rifles.
On the other side, Republicans largely said the state should focus more on enforcing laws already on the books instead of passing new gun control laws. One exception was Martin, the governor from 1985-93, who said the state should close the loophole that allows some firearms to be sold without background checks at gun shows.
Valone, who leads the gun rights group Grass Roots North Carolina, said the state should make it easier to have guns in public.
“No changes except to loosen restrictions on lawful concealed carry,” he said. “I defy anyone to find a serious, methodologically sound study showing that any gun law reduces violent crime.”
When guns weren’t the subject at hand, the Influencers tended to agree more often. One such area was their general consensus that too many people are locked up, and that those who have a criminal record need a better chance once they’re out to rejoin society and not have to return to a life of crime to make money.
Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a former N.C. Supreme Court justice, said the legislature should pass a ”Ban The Box” law — and that state regulatory boards shouldn’t be denying licenses to work in their fields to someone simply because of a criminal record. Currently, a criminal record can prevent people from getting permission to work in jobs ranging from barber to lawyer.
“The single biggest thing that North Carolina policymakers can do to reduce crime is to create a vibrant, full-employment economy with laws that allow a second-chance for those who have previously transgressed the law, but satisfied their debt to society,” she said.
Liz Chen, who created the teen-focused health care app MyHealthEd, said she used to be a high school teacher in rural North Carolina and saw too many former students graduate, unready to go to college but also unable to get or keep a stable job, and then wind up behind bars.
“North Carolina’s current education system did not adequately equip students with the hard and soft skills (e.g. collaboration, negotiation, coping, and mental health/emotional health skills) needed to thrive in the workforce; now they are in jail,” Chen said. “In order to reduce crime rates, our public education system (pre-K through grade 12) must work with and integrate with post-secondary education institutions (community colleges and 4-year universities) and employers.”
As for racial bias in the criminal justice system, nearly everyone who answered the survey said it’s a problem. Both liberals and conservatives agreed that minorities are frequently treated unfairly.
Thomas Stith, a black man who was McCrory’s chief of staff, said the justice system itself is not inherently racist — but that doesn’t stop racism from seeping in.
“Our justice system is a commendable model,” he said. “Some of the people who implement the system are not.”
Mark Rizer, an executive vice president and head of community relations at Wells Fargo, said there’s no denying the facts.
“There are many empirical studies which indicate that African Americans are treated less well than whites under similar situations (e.g., death penalty sentencing). This is an issue that has gotten the attention of both the right and left and should be a problem that unites us.”
Charlotte Observer staff writer Nancy Webb contributed to this report.