Recreational marijuana is now legal for more than 72 million Americans in 10 states. North Carolina isn’t one of those states - but that doesn’t mean the conversation around legalization is quiet here.
Michigan and Vermont became the ninth and tenth states to legalize recreational marijuana late last year. They’re the latest moves in a decades-old national experiment that involves lowering restrictions on what some call a dangerous drug, and others call a vice no more vexing than alcohol or tobacco.
“Just since I’ve been practicing, they have been relaxed even in that 15 year period," says Ashley Welch, district attorney for the westernmost portions of North Carolina. “Now, basic misdemeanor possession of paraphernalia is a class 3 misdemeanor. Most of the time, you don’t even qualify for a court-appointed lawyer with that because your punishment is a fine and [court] costs.”
But marijuana is still illegal in North Carolina, unlike in Colorado, the first state to allow retail sales of recreational marijuana in 2014. Washington State followed months later, Alaska and Oregon two years after that. Those states, particularly Colorado, have been studied extensively by legislators, law enforcement and economists from across the nation all attempting to cut through the aggressive advocacy on both sides of the issue.
Conflicting claims by competing interests cloud the issue. One is that legalization will unclog the criminal justice system. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, according to Welch. “We don’t get that much. Certainly it is on the docket, but you’re straight up possession of marijuana we don’t have all that often. It’s usually combined with drug paraphernalia or often times it’ll be a felony level. What we’ve been doing for years is offering deferred prosecution programs on those lower-level charges, particularly if it’s your first offense.”
Another claim, by the Drug Policy Alliance, is that driving under the influence declines. But a 2016 study by a multi-agency law enforcement consortium called HIDTA says marijuana related wrecks have gone up. The DPA says teen marijuana use has remained steady for two decades, even in post-legalization states, but HIDTA counters that Colorado’s teens use of marijuana is at a rate 85 percent higher rate than their peers. After legalization in Colorado, a reduction in opioid overdose deaths was reported by the DPA, but HIDTA responds that marijuana-related hospitalizations in Colorado are up 148 percent.
One thing that is hard to argue with is the tax revenue generated by the marijuana economy – Colorado’s collected more than $880 billion since legalization, for schools, healthcare and law enforcement. But even that may have a downside full of unanticipated consequences, says Waynesville Police Chief Bill Holingshed. “I think one of the big things is the taxation. They said initially in Colorado it all came down to, ‘look at the money that it’s going to bring in. The revenue side. Look what it’s going to do for the state.” I think there’s a lot of other issues we need to look at in addition to just how much money it’s going to make us. We could sell a lot of things and make money.”
Either way, the path to legalization flows through the state legislature, which would need to pass a bill, or create a ballot question similar to last fall’s voter ID measure. Rep. Michele Presnell, who represents Madison, Yancey, and part of Haywood County, says she’s firmly opposed to legalization. Sen. Jim Davis, a Republican from Franklin, says he’s adopting a wait and see attitude, similar to Waynesville Democratic Rep. Joe Sam Queen, who says it’s a conversation already taking place in his district. “The law enforcement community has a big interest in it, the medical community has a big interest in it, the public health community has a big interest in it, the business community has a big interest in it, citizens of every stripe, pro and con have a big interest in it.”
Some local mayors and aldermen are also against it, like at least four Haywood County commissioners. But some, like Waynesville’s Gavin Brown and Jon Feichter, favor legalization. Others remain undecided, according to Queen. “I think they are little like me, they are watching to see what happens across the country, they may not be against it or for it yet. They’re listening and watching and I am open-minded and listening as well.”
Listening – for a conversation that’s coming to North Carolina sooner rather than later.