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Column: Why North Carolina should, but won’t, legalize marijuana

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Last Tuesday, Ohio voted 'yes' on State Issue 2, becoming the 24th state to legalize recreational marijuana. 

Though marijuana is only legal in roughly half the nation, support for its recreational use has risen from 12 percent in 1969 to 70 percent in 2023, according to Gallup polls.

Maybe you’re wondering, “Why are people pushing to legalize marijuana?”

There are a number of incentives.

First, according to the Marijuana Policy Project website, the government would gain the ability to regulate and collect taxes on marijuana by legalizing it — benefitting the government and consumers. This would lead to improved quality control and labeling, perhaps similar to nutrition labels, giving buyers better transparency and safety about what they’re consuming. It could help remove what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call the most used federally illegal drug in the United States from an illegal underground market, while allowing the government to generate tax revenue from its sales. 

Second, criminal enforcement of marijuana-related crimes can be racially biased. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Black individuals are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts, despite both groups using marijuana at roughly equal rates. 

While the country's deeply racist criminal justice system and mass incarceration problem are topics far too vast and complicated to be fixed with the resolution of a single issue, beginning with the national decriminalization of a less-dangerous drug is an important step in preventing unjust and racially biased arrests.

Third, enforcing marijuana laws costs the government nearly $3.6 billion a year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. This is money that could be much better spent — I can personally think of at least 50 different ways. 

Additionally, marijuana has medical benefits that can alleviate some symptoms of anxiety, Parkinson's disease, gastrointestinal disorders and the effects of chemotherapy. It can also lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and prevent relapse of other drug and alcohol addictions.

Given these incentives, you may be wondering: Will North Carolina be the 25th state to legalize recreational marijuana? The answer, unfortunately, is probably not.

Ohio and North Carolina parallel each other in a few essential ways: Both have Republican-led state legislatures and are swing states that voted for Trump in 2020. Despite these similarities, it’s hard to say that the Ohio decision made last Tuesday gives North Carolina residents any hope of a similar change.

Unlike people in Ohio, North Carolina residents don’t have the power to initiate a statewide initiative or referendum. This is important because it was Ohio residents, specifically the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, that got Issue 2 on the ballot. 

So even though 57 percent of North Carolina voters support the legalization of recreational marijuana, according to a 2022 poll by SurveyUSA, the only hope for a statewide change is if the state or federal legislatures initiate it. 

But, perhaps the GOP-led legislature will surprise us. In fact, earlier in the year, House Bill 626 and Senate Bill 346 — both pieces of legislation that would legalize recreational marijuana — each passed its first reading. However, neither has gained traction since, and it’s uncertain if the issue will be revisited within the legislative session. 

The criminalization of the drug seems to be more harmful than the drug itself. You can help change this. 

If this is something near and dear to your heart, consider lighting up the issue by writing to your representatives and making it a higher priority on their list. 

In the meantime, if you or people you know are friends of "Mary Jane," make yourself familiar with UNC’s medical amnesty policy and the resources and information available to you. 

 @dthopinion | 

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