Deep in tobacco country, a new bill has been submitted by North Carolina’s democratic lawmakers to bring about a regulated industry surrounding legalized cannabis. The legislation, H.B 617, was submitted earlier this week and addresses several topics surrounding incarcerations, social justice, and, of course, the erection of a legalized cannabis industry in a state that has characteristically steered clear of cannabis. Currently, North Carolina has not approved even medical marijuana.
The bill was filed on Tuesday, April 20th, 2021, a characteristically unique date in cannabis culture and a sort of unofficial official holiday during which all things marijuana are celebrated. As it stands, the bill will provide for many changes to the state’s current laws regarding the contentious plant. Among those changes detailed in the 19-page bill are:
Many in the Tar Heel state are tempering their optimism that this most recent effort to legalize cannabis in the country’s biggest tobacco region. It is, in fact, North Carolina’s largest industry. Add to that the continuing tensions between democrat and republican lawmakers, the latter of which controls both houses in NC, and the potential for passage looks bleak at best.
That said, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia, North Carolina’s neighbor to the north, recently signed cannabis legalization into law. It will still be a few years until the infrastructure is in place for a fully legalized retail industry. However, murmurings of lost revenue to Virginia’s budding pot business are already lighting a fire under conservative legislators. With the majority of North Carolina’s population an hour or less from Virginia’s borders, there will be ample opportunity for cannabis tourism one state over if NC ultimately decides against legalized cannabis. That lost revenue may be enough to bring Republicans to the negotiating table and seriously consider cannabis legalization in a state that is likely the best suited for industrial-scale production than any other region in the US.
Democratic state House Rep. Pricey Harrison was interviewed by local television station WBTV regarding the legislation. Harrison and his colleagues have emphasized that this legislation is not just about opening new markets and generating revenue for the state, but that it comes also as an effort inspired by empathy. On the topic, Harrison stated, “We all know someone or have a constituent that has contacted House Member’s offices for help with a relative or friend being jailed for possession of small amounts of marijuana. We took great care in writing this bill to include items to encourage bipartisan support. This bill will ensure appropriate guidelines and restrictions.”
While Harrison and his colleagues are certain this legislation is a step in the right direction, his colleagues on the other side of the aisle remain skeptical. His constituents, on the other hand, tend to agree that legalization is the right way to go. According to a recent Elon University poll, a majority of North Carolinians, 54 percent, are in favor of legalized recreational cannabis.
States are opening up their infrastructure to include cannabis industries at an increasing rate. As a result, the instances of opposition to cannabis legislation are sharply declining, even in a state that has historically been tied to tobacco as its main cash crop.
Jason Husser, associate professor of political science at Elon University and director of the Elon Poll, emphasized the significant shift from the state’s historically counter-cannabis culture.
“Opposition to recreational marijuana legalization fell substantially over the last three years,” Husser told local news channel Fox8, attributing the shift in large part to “the wave of states that have passed legalization measures.” Husser went on to add, “Medical marijuana legalization remains broadly supported in every demographic group we examined.”
As the shift in constituents’ thinking softens the division of past opposition, senior state officials are slowly warming up to the idea. Josh Stein, North Carolina’s Attorney General, said in late 2020, “You cannot talk about improving racial equity in our criminal justice system without talking about marijuana.” Stein, a Democrat, went on to add, “White and Black North Carolinians use marijuana at similar rates, yet Black people are disproportionately arrested and sentenced. Additionally, it is time for North Carolina to start having real conversations about a safe, measured, public health approach to potentially legalizing marijuana.”
According to State Rep. Mary Belk (D), a co-sponsor of H.B. 617, communities of color are “4.2 times more likely” to be arrested for marijuana in the state’s Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte. While the representative did not cite a study, in particular, the American Civil Liberties Union found that statistic to be the case, specifically in Mecklenburg County, in 2018.
All this conversation at the constituent and legislative levels have opponents and proponents paying close attention to how cannabis legislation is shaping up in North Carolina. Yet, the state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, has been largely quiet on the subject. Gov. Cooper did, however, appoint a task force to study the issue of cannabis in North Carolina more closely. Their findings resulted in a recommendation to legalize cannabis in the state, asserting the results would equal a boon for local economies and right the criminal justice inconsistencies imposed on communities of color throughout the state.