Pubdate: Sat, 08 Mar 2014
Source: News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
Copyright: 2014 The News and Observer Publishing Company
Author: Ned Barnett


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.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom