Some members of the General Assembly will be discussing reforms to the state’s marijuana laws when it goes into session in January 2019, including a proposal for a local legalization option.
“It just made sense,” said N.C. Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg. “North Carolina should be moving to change these draconian laws because it was evidenced that medical marijuana helped to alleviate pain and suffering in a number of conditions, and in the period of time that I’ve been here in the legislature, more and more evidence comes out that that’s the case.”
Despite Alexander’s claim that the evidence is stacking up on his side, polling data suggests that marijuana legalization remains controversial.
Alexander referred to a 2017 poll by Elon University, which showed almost 80 percent of North Carolinians support the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes only but only 45 percent support for recreational use.
"So clearly the citizens of the state are way ahead of the 170 members of the General Assembly in terms of their recognition that it’s time for things to change,” he said.
Alexander said the proposal would not legalize marijuana statewide, but rather offer an option for localities to pass their own legalization.
“The statute is going to be patterned after the way North Carolina legalized liquor after Prohibition," Alexander said. "And if we’re able to get it through, what you would have is a situation where, let’s say Orange County decided that it wanted to liberalize. Well, you could do it either by a vote of the town council, or the county commission, or a petition from the citizens that would create a referendum."
Alexander said any of these three methods would legalize marijuana within their particular jurisdiction. For example, a town council vote would legalize within the town, a county commissioner vote would legalize within the county and the referendum would specify whether it would be legalized at the county or municipal level.
Carrboro Board of Aldermen member Damon Seils said the Town currently has very little authority to do much regarding drug laws.
“But the police department has for some years, actually, already had a practice of de-prioritizing minor marijuana offenses," Seils said. "That was reiterated a couple of years ago when the Orange County Bias Free Policing Coalition released a set of recommendations, and one of those recommendations was to de-prioritize marijuana enforcement."
However, Seils said current state law prevents local governments from creating policies allowing marijuana use.
"It’s just a matter of how the police department prioritizes its resources," Seils said. "We have a small police department, and they have their hands full with more important issues. They have things that they see as much higher priority.”
But while marijuana legalization remains controversial in North Carolina, Alexander and legislators in the General Assembly will be looking for input from the public.
“You’ve got to reach out and let your members of the House and Senate know that it’s time to change our marijuana laws, and that you would like them to support the legislation that is being introduced," Alexander said. "Write them, email them, visit them, do whatever is necessary to let them know that you as voting citizens want the status quo to change.”
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