HIGH COUNTRY — While much of the focus was on the U.S. presidential race in the 2020 General Election, voters in five states also approved the legalization of marijuana, bringing the total to 36 states that have legalized it for medical use, if not recreational.

Many states have gone through a step-by-step process toward legalization, starting with medicinal use and going up to regulated legalization. However, South Dakota went from illegal to totally legal in only one election.

North Carolina’s legalization efforts have stopped at allowing CBD hemp, a low-to-to-no-THC form of the plant. In the past 10 years, the state’s stance on the still federally illegal drug has gone from the norm to an outlier, with neighboring Virginia even moving for legalization. With an already more tolerating legal stance, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced in November a plan to legalize marijuana in the state by the end of 2021.

However, the discussion of legalization is not stopping at the state level. On Dec. 4, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the MORE Act with a 228-158 vote. A large part of the MORE Act is the focus on how non-white Americans have been disproportionally affected by marijuana laws.

The North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, which was convened by N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper via Executive Order 145 on June 9, focuses on such issues. The task force made preliminary recommendations on Nov. 18 to help deal with oversights, discriminations and other problems minorities face when it comes to the state’s law enforcement and judicial systems.

These recommendations included the decriminalization of possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana. According to the task force, there were 31,287 charges and 8,520 convictions for up to half of an ounce in 2019, 61 percent of those convicted were nonwhite. Meanwhile, there were 3,422 charges and 1,909 convictions for the possession of between a half-ounce up to 1.5 ounces, 70 percent of those convicted were nonwhite.

While the focus of the task force is on law enforcement, Ashe County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Danny Houck said, in Ashe at least, the legalization of marijuana would not have much of an effect.

“It would depend on how they legalize it, the amounts and things of that nature,” Houck said, noting most arrests for marijuana in Ashe County are for less than half of an ounce, but they do occasionally find people with more than that.

According to Houck, many arrests in Ashe County that include a charge of marijuana possession also include other charges, with a lot of those arrests not being initiated by the drug’s possession but by something else. He also noted that many people arrested purely for marijuana possession spend time in the Ashe County Detention Center.

But whatever marijuana’s legal status in North Carolina, Houck said the ACSO has even larger concerns. Houck pointed to methamphetamine and other hard drugs as more prominent and problematic for law enforcement in Ashe.

According to the ACSO, 77 people were arrested with drug charges from Jan. 1 to Dec. 7. During those arrests, marijuana or a derivative in some form was seized 50 times.

Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman added that for many years, in concert with local district attorneys, small amounts of possessing marijuana are often addressed through a citation or criminal summons; individuals are often not formally taken into custody.

Hagaman also guessed that most of the legal smoke shops would be located in the corporate limits of municipalities in Watauga County — which the sheriff noted is a dry county — if marijuana were legalized. He said that likely any revenues would probably be received by those municipalities with the smoke shops, much like how ABC alcohol revenue remains with those respective municipalities.

“I am sure there would have to be strict oversight,” Hagaman said.

Opposed to the drug’s legalization is Avery Sheriff Kevin Frye, who points to marijuana’s reputation as a “gateway drug.”

“In every interview I’ve done with people we’ve arrested for drugs, they’ve started out with marijuana before they ever went to something else. They’re saying that it’s not a gateway drug, but you can hardly find anyone that starts out using methamphetamine. It’s a gradual process, and it’s a psychological process of using anything to numb or alter your perceptions, feelings or emotions. It starts you down a bad pathway,” Frye said.

Frye said he could understand Congress moving marijuana to a less stringent scheduling federally, yet he remains “totally against the legalization of marijuana.” Additionally, legalization would make it more difficult for police to enforce other drug laws. While the Avery County Sheriff’s Office does make charges solely for marijuana-related offenses, similar charges are often tacked on to arrests made for the distribution and possession for heroin and methamphetamine. Often the odor of marijuana leads to the search for and discovery of other substances in offenders’ vehicles.

“The thing that really concerns me is that we do have alcohol sensors and if you’re driving and are above a certain alcohol level, we know that you’re drunk. How do we know if you’ve been smoking marijuana? There is no test for that,” Frye said. “(Also, legalization) would ruin our probable cause to search. The odor of marijuana gives us probable cause to search if our dogs hit on it, and the other thing is, legalization would ruin the use of all the dogs we have, because they’re all trained to hit on marijuana.”

Many states have begun the process of legalizing marijuana with medical uses only. Medical cannabis has been used to reduce nausea in patients going through chemotherapy, improve appetite in HIV/AIDS patients and deal with chronic pain.

AppHealthCare Health Director Jen Greene said her agency was taking time to review the recommendations included in the task force’s report. She noted that there’s a distinction between decriminalization and legalization, and she’d like to have more conversations with other community partners in law enforcement, education and healthcare as the recommendations are reviewed.

Greene said AppHealthCare recognizes the importance of utilizing a health equity lens for public health, meaning in many cases the agency needs to tailor its approach to help improve the public’s health for everyone. Greene noted that AppHealthCare has worked hard to acknowledge the importance of linking individuals who have substance use disorder to resources and support through its peer support program for opioid use disorder and through our partnerships with others in our community working together to address substance use.

“I hope that there is ongoing dialogue about public health research as it relates to brain development, youth initiation of substance use and health equity to have open dialogue about risks and benefits,” Greene said. “We want to see a vibrant, healthy community for all people, and especially those that may be from a historically marginalized population.”

If marijuana were to be legalized in North Carolina, it would have a far-reaching impact on law enforcement, the economy and how marijuana is treated by the general public, according to other officials. Education at the local level would feel the effects, and Ashe County Schools Superintendent Eisa Cox said “there would be a comprehensive change in schools.”

At Ashe County High School there are Drug and Alcohol Testing Procedures, which have been in place since 2013, and which apply to all high school students who elect on a voluntary basis to operate or park a motor vehicle on campus.

According to procedures, to be eligible to operate or park a motor vehicle on campus, students and their parents or guardians must agree in writing on a form adopted by the ACHS administration to submit to random alcohol and drug testing. Also according to the procedure handbook, up to 5 percent of the eligible high school students shall be selected, at random, for testing on a periodic basis as established by the ACHS administration and approved by the Ashe County Board of Education.

“Students may be tested for the presence of alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, anabolic steroids, amphetamines and any other drugs that ACHS administration deems appropriate,” the procedure reads.

The cost of testing is paid for by the Board of Education, and it is stated that any positive test results will not result in suspension from school.

The economic impact if N.C. legalized marijuana would also be felt. According to Forbes, Washington, California and Colorado all totaled more than $250 million in tax money from marijuana sales alone in 2018, with Washington and California rising above the $300 million mark. In states that have already legalized the drug, marijuana has led to not only additional tax dollars, but new jobs at dispensaries and farms.

According to Ashe County Extension Executive Director Tavis Birdsell, parallels can be drawn between the potential legalization of marijuana and the 2018 legalization of hemp for CBD purposes.

He said the first year of CBD hemp legalization saw many wanting to grow it, but that the number of licenses had dropped “dramatically” due to a variety of causes. Supply chain prices dropping due to the abundance, people still not having sold all of their crop and legalization in other states all contributed to the fall.

Richard Boylan, the small farm management agent for Watauga County Cooperative Extension, already fields the agency’s questions from local farmers in regard to hemp. He said the enthusiasm from locals about hemp early-on was fueled partly by “unrealistic notions” about ease of cannabis cultivation, and the “unrealistic expectations” regarding the price of the crops.

“In other states that have legalized it, that’s happened with recreational marijuana. Any time you have something new that can potentially make money, everyone’s going to try it, the market will crash and then it will level out,” Birdsell said.

Birdsell said that in the event of marijuana’s legalization, the Extension would help with education on growing, as they do with all other crops. He added that research on the growing production systems for CBD hemp are still being researched, meaning they can be that much ahead should recreational marijuana be legalized.

“I suspect there would be similar growing pains. You’d have to set up how you are going to monitor it for safety protocols, supply chain and everything else. There’s no doubt that there would be money to be made,” Birdsell said.

Birdsell said that like any plant, marijuana would have to deal with High Country weather. However, he noted it would be the same as anyone growing hemp, which many already are in Ashe, as the only difference in the plants is on a chemical level.

If marijuana were legalized, Boylan said Watauga Extension would surely provide guidance regarding management options for soil fertility, crop planning, pest management and marketing to an extent — as has already happened with hemp.

“The cannabis supply and inputs market — spanning fertilizers, pesticides and more — is an area of innovation but too frequently also one of hype and price gouging,” Boylan said. “Extension’s mission of empowering growers with unbiased and research-based information would hopefully be broadly useful to cannabis growers, just as we are for corn, tomatoes, strawberries and all other crops.”

Boylan added that the reality of cannabis cultivation is that disease and insect pressure is quite high for outdoor and greenhouse production. The common diseases (Fusarium, Hemp Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew and others) and insects (borers, earworms and other caterpillars in outdoor production, and mites and aphids in greenhouses) require active management via cultural controls and the presently limited allowable pesticides, according to Boylan.

“As for prices, local dried flower material to be used for cannabinoid/oil extraction must compete against material produced in locations with lower disease and insect pressure,” Boylan said. “This has exerted a downward pressure on local prices to the point that hemp production has not seemed particularly profitable to many local growers compared to the Christmas tree or vegetable crops that they also produce.”

On Monday, Dec. 14, the Task Force delivered its report to Cooper.

“Today’s report is a next step towards the actions that North Carolina must take to end racial disparities in the criminal justice system, not the final word,” Task Force member and N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls said. “The implementation chart listing all the recommendations will help direct our work ahead and monitor our progress. I am grateful for the hundreds of people from diverse perspectives who gave us their best thinking on what needs to change; to be successful, we will need their continued involvement going forward.”

Of the 125 proposed “solutions” in its report, the Task Force made three recommendations related to marijuana, all falling under the “Eliminating Racial Disparities in the Courts” section and involving policy or legislative change. The full list of recommendations can be found HERE.

The first called for the deprioritization of marijuana-related arrests and prosecution, which would require state, local agency and prosecutorial policy changes. Second was the decriminalization of the possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana, which is currently a misdemeanor under N.C. G.S. 90-95. The final recommendation was to “Convene a task force of stakeholders to study the pros and cons and options for legalization of possession, cultivation and/or sale of marijuana.”

While the Task Force has made its recommendations, it would ultimately take legislative action for any such changes to take effect.

More information about the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice’s recommendations can be found HERE.

Ian Taylor, Kayla Lasure, Luke Barber and Bailey Little contributed reporting to this story.

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