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Legal marijuana is on the way in NC. Let’s be smart about it.

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State Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg, is making a push in Raleigh for the state to legalize marijuana for medical use. Legislation could be introduced at the start of 2019.

While it’s great that North Carolina may open up a conversation on cannabis, it still lags behind the 32 states that have already legalized marijuana for either recreational or medical use. Full legalization for both medical and recreational use, if done properly, would decriminalize already common behavior and save the state time and money by setting up a long-term framework for marijuana as a commodity.

The thought of marijuana for sale in everyday retail locations can be off putting to well-intentioned people with reasonable concerns about public safety or their children’s health. But North Carolina doesn’t have to go into the future blindfolded: Marijuana legalization has been done before, and we can learn from both states that have done it well and those that have struggled.

California allowed heavy-handed taxes and licensing restrictions on legal marijuana to significantly increase prices, fomenting a black market where none need exist, a path North Carolina would be wise to avoid. Localities have also been reticent to allow marijuana retail stores to occupy their streets, making legal access scarce in the state. This has needlessly suppressed the state’s tax revenue from the industry.

Another practical reality of legalizing medical marijuana is that a ballot measure to advance it recreationally won’t be far off. A cannabis industry will grow rapidly and settle into whatever regulatory and tax framework is first put in place.

It has been difficult for Colorado and Washington to foster a thriving market for marijuana when the rules change frequently, so North Carolina must avoid this. A half measure will be expensive. It will be challenging, but North Carolinians broadly support it, at least for medical purposes, with overwhelming support among millennials.

But what about public safety? Our understanding of marijuana’s effect on traffic incidents is mixed at best. The American Journal of Public Health looked for an increase in traffic deaths within states that legalized marijuana—and there was no increase to be found. In fact, fatalities behind the wheel decreased by 12 percent in “green” states among the age 25 to 44 cohort. This could be because this group drives less, uses ridesharing more frequently, or perhaps it’s because one caricature of pot smokers holds pretty true—they’re likely smoking on the couch at home.

In one of the more encouraging twists of the 2000s, drug use and other risky behavior is actually declining among American teenagers. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, overall drug use is down, along with binge drinking.

Marijuana has increased in use, but not universally in states where it is legal. Californian teens are reportedly using the drug less even with broad access to legal marijuana. North Carolinians worried about legalization should take heart that marijuana has not led to harder drug use overall, and has supplanted the more dangerous use of alcohol among young people.

As N.C. lawmakers start discussing medical marijuana legalization, they should be able to draw from a common set of facts about marijuana use. Marijuana has seen increases in favorability for decades, and if the new legislature doesn’t open the gates, then another one surely will. The Republicans who hold the reins in Raleigh should think ahead, and make our state’s transition to cannabis legalization as smooth, profitable, and safe as possible.

Stephen Kent of Raleigh, a UNC-Greensboro graduate in political science, is the spokesperson for the group Young Voices. Twitter: @Stephen_Kent89
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