Le­gal pot on the way in NC, so let’s be smart about it

The News & Observer - - Opinion - BY STEPHEN KENT Stephen Kent of Raleigh, a UNC-Greens­boro grad­u­ate in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence, is the spokesper­son for the group Young Voices. Twit­ter: @Stephen_Kent89

State Rep. Kelly Alexan­der, D-Meck­len­burg, is mak­ing a push in Raleigh for the state to le­gal­ize mar­i­juana for med­i­cal use. Leg­is­la­tion could be in­tro­duced at the start of 2019.

While it’s great that North Carolina may open up a con­ver­sa­tion on cannabis, it still lags be­hind the 32 states that have al­ready le­gal­ized mar­i­juana for ei­ther recre­ational or med­i­cal use. Full le­gal­iza­tion for both med­i­cal and recre­ational use, if done prop­erly, would de­crim­i­nal­ize al­ready com­mon be­hav­ior and save the state time and money by set­ting up a long-term frame­work for mar­i­juana as a com­mod­ity.

The thought of mar­i­juana for sale in ev­ery­day re­tail lo­ca­tions can be off putting to well-in­ten­tioned peo­ple with rea­son­able con­cerns about pub­lic safety or their chil­dren’s health. But North Carolina doesn’t have to go into the fu­ture blind­folded: Mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion has been done be­fore, and we can learn from both states that have done it well and those that have strug­gled.

Cal­i­for­nia al­lowed heavy­handed taxes and li­cens­ing re­stric­tions on legal­mar­i­juana to sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease prices, fo­ment­ing a black mar­ket where none need ex­ist, a path North Carolina would be wise to avoid. Lo­cal­i­ties have also been re­luc­tant to al­low­mar­i­juana re­tail stores to oc­cupy their streets, mak­ing le­gal ac­cess scarce in the state. This has need­lessly sup­pressed the state’s tax rev­enue from the in­dus­try.

An­other prac­ti­cal re­al­ity of le­gal­iz­ing med­i­cal mar­i­juana is that a bal­lot mea­sure to ad­vance it recre­ation­ally won’t be far off. A cannabis in­dus­try will grow rapidly and set­tle into what­ever reg­u­la­tory and tax frame­work is first put in place.

It has been dif­fi­cult for Colorado and Wash­ing­ton to foster a thriv­ing mar­ket for mar­i­juana when the rules change fre­quently, so North Carolina must avoid this. A half mea­sure will be ex­pen­sive. It will be chal­leng­ing, but North Carolini­ans broadly sup­port it, at least for med­i­cal pur­poses, with over­whelm­ing sup­port among mil­len­ni­als.

But what about pub­lic safety? Our un­der­stand­ing of mar­i­juana’s ef­fect on traf­fic in­ci­dents is mixed at best. The Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Pub­lic Health looked for an in­crease in traf­fic deaths within states that le­gal­ized mar­i­juana—and there was no in­crease to be found. In fact, fa­tal­i­ties be­hind the wheel de­creased by 12 per­cent in “green” states among the age 25 to 44 co­hort. This could be be­cause this group drives less, uses rideshar­ing more fre­quently, or per­haps it’s be­cause one car­i­ca­ture of pot smok­ers holds pretty true— they’re likely smok­ing on the couch at home.

In one of the more en­cour­ag­ing twists of the 2000s, drug use and other risky be­hav­ior is ac­tu­ally de­clin­ing among Amer­i­can teenagers. Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Drug Abuse, over­all drug use is down, along with binge drink­ing.

Mar­i­juana has in­creased in use, but not uni­ver­sally in states where it is le­gal. Cal­i­for­nian teens are re­port­edly us­ing the drug less even with broad ac­cess to le­gal mar­i­juana. North Carolini­ans wor­ried about le­gal­iza­tion should take heart that mar­i­juana has not led to harder drug use over­all, and has sup­planted the more dan­ger­ous use of al­co­hol among young peo­ple.

As N.C. law­mak­ers start dis­cussing med­i­cal­mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion, they should be able to draw from a com­mon set of facts about mar­i­juana use. Mar­i­juana has seen in­creases in fa­vor­a­bil­ity for decades, and if the new leg­is­la­ture doesn’t open the gates, then an­other one surely will. The Repub­li­cans who hold the reins in Raleigh should think ahead, and make our state’s tran­si­tion to cannabis le­gal­iza­tion as smooth, prof­itable, and safe as pos­si­ble.

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