Meyer Op-Ed shows path to full cannabis legalization in N.C.


Originally published at INDY Week

Right now, as readers pick up a copy of this column, there are students at UNC and Duke who are smoking or otherwise consuming cannabis with little fear of repercussions.

Meanwhile, all over North Carolina, Black and brown users of the exact same drug are being arrested and convicted at over twice the rate of their white counterparts.

There’s nothing new here. The war on cannabis and broader “War on Drugs” has always been pursued selectively. And while we might want to dismiss the law enforcement zeal of the 1980s and 1990s—with its racist disparities between prison sentences for crack and powder cocaine—as a relic of another time, we cannot.

As Attorney General Josh Stein and I discussed recently, racial justice issues in North Carolina cannot be addressed without taking on the continued prohibition of cannabis. In North Carolina people of color make up more than 60 percent of convictions for marijuana possession, despite being only 30 percent of the population, and despite the fact that the drug is consumed roughly equally across racial lines, according to Governor Cooper’s racial equity task force.

Arrest and conviction have implications far beyond a fine and time behind bars. Criminal punishment often leads to crippling, lifelong issues, like the loss of housing, difficulty finding employment, and even challenges to a parent’s custody of their children.

It’s time for a change. Whether you care about safety in your community, honestly dealing with abuse and addiction, racial justice reform, or raising tax revenue, cannabis prohibition—which has always been rooted more in racism than in concerns over public health—is outdated and must end.

We can make this change responsibly, with a bipartisan effort in the General Assembly.

It is time for bold reforms. North Carolina should learn from states that have already gone down this path and do this in the way that is right for our people. We have to guard against growing cannabis outside the legal system. We have to carefully regulate the products for consumer safety. We have to deter underage use by avoiding harmful advertising and funding strong health and safety education programs. And we have to ensure that the economic benefits of legalization help reinvest in the communities most damaged by our terrible history with cannabis.

That’s why last year Senator Jay Chaudhuri and I pushed forward and introduced House Bill 576, the Marijuana Justice and Reinvestment Act. Our bill sets out a framework for decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the criminal records of those people who have been convicted of offenses that would no longer be illegal. The bill would regulate and tax the sale of cannabis. And it would dedicate portions of the economic opportunity and tax revenues to reinvesting in the communities most damaged by the war on drugs.

Broad majorities of Americans—Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike—agree that the draconian crackdown on drugs that ruined the lives of millions and continues to have repercussions today went too far and was largely a failure. Those numbers include upward of 80 percent of Republicans.

With the proper safeguards, planning, and regulation, I am ready to work across the aisle with my GOP colleagues to make cannabis legalization a reality. My Republican colleagues see legal sales ready to begin in Virginia as early as next year—and the billions that come along with it in tax revenue. They see a political environment where 21 states and territories, including Washington, DC, have already legalized.

In the South, even Louisiana and Mississippi have legalized medical cannabis, finally acknowledging the health benefits that cancer and other sufferers of chronic illness have touted from the shadows for generations.

What we can’t do, what I will not do, is continue to pretend that the use of cannabis isn’t widespread already. Turning a blind eye to this issue is no longer an option. It is time for a legal system to regulate and tax this widely used drug.

What North Carolina can do is put in place a system that is the gold standard and envy of the rest of the nation. We can do this by implementing a new legal cannabis regime in a framework that:

• Uses generated tax dollars to reinvest in communities of color. Taxation of cannabis will be a huge windfall for North Carolina. We must use a large portion of these proceeds to invest in communities that have been hardest hit by racist selective enforcement.

 Allows North Carolinians to benefit from raising, producing, and selling cannabis. In other states, multinational corporations control the marketplace and take profits away from the community. North Carolinians need a chance to prosper from every part of this new economy.

 Uses safeguarding mechanisms even stronger than our liquor distribution model. Love them or hate them, ABC stores allow the state to control place, price, and distribution, leading to one of the lowest rates of alcohol abuse in the country while also generating more revenue for the state than a private sales model. Cannabis should have even stronger state control, including the use of a state lab that is responsible for testing and labeling product.

 Supports a robust public health advocacy campaign. This will discourage underage and other irresponsible uses—such as driving while intoxicated—and inform residents about the science behind cannabis, not the hype. If there’s ever been an industry that doesn’t need advertising to be popular, this is it. Simply put, cannabis should be legalized but not glamorized.

There are many issues on which my Republican colleagues and I may never agree. But on this, I believe there is a chance for joint action. The people of North Carolina are ready. We should seize the opportunity to deliver a legalization regime that moves North Carolina past the fear and stigma of the drug wars and into a 21st century that responsibly ends prohibition and creates a fairer and more prosperous society for all.

I’m ready to lead us there.

Rep. Graig Meyer is a Democrat representing House District 50. He is a candidate for North Carolina Senate, District 23, in the Democratic primary on May 17. The new state senate district includes Orange, Person, and Caswell Counties.