Marijuana legalization is a tough row to hoe, but we in the mountains deserve the opportunity to voice our opinions before governmental big-wigs plow through any decisions on the topic.

Marijuana laws across the nation are rapidly changing, and following the Nov. 3 election, this includes legal revisions in places such as North Carolina’s immediate neighbors.

Perhaps this is why the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equality in Criminal Justice, convened by Gov. Roy Cooper and co-chaired by Justice Anita Earls and Attorney General Josh Stein, released its recommendations this week to not only decriminalize marijuana possession in small amounts, but further study the potential legalization of marijuana possession, cultivation and sale.

This is concerning on many fronts, and not least that the argument from the side of the task force is couched in racial equality and not the medical effects of illegal drug use: Although “White and Black North Carolinians use marijuana at similar rates... Black people are disproportionately arrested and sentenced,” the task force opines. Indeed, the task force tells us, “it is time for North Carolina to start having real conversations about a safe, measured, public health approach to potentially legalizing marijuana.”

These are serious and societal-changing recommendations, and as such they deserve a thorough conversation.

That is, whether or not task forces’ stats will stand up to scrutiny, whether or not it is time for North Carolina to start having “real conversations,” and whether or not we at the Ashe Post & Times stand on one side or the other of fully legalizing marijuana in North Carolina is not the point. At least not today.

At this time, we’re just hoping the mountains of Western North Carolina will have a seat at the table before final recommendations are acted upon.

The current list of names on Cooper’s task force are reputable and credible but — save for outliers such as the Chair of the Transylvania County Commission Mike Hawkins — are by and large from the central and eastern regions of our state.

Given the very real concerns — and statistics — of illegal drug use in the mountains, it is imperative that Western North Carolina be fully involved in discussions about the legalization of marijuana.

Hopefully this will happen sooner rather than later — before any recommendations are acted upon by a governorship that summoned the group making those recommendations — and there is a chance of this. Sort of.

In addition to task force guidance that would decriminalize the possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana, and suggest that prosecutors “immediately reprioritize marijuana-related prosecution in non-ABC permitted locations,” the task force “recommends that North Carolina convene a Task Force of stakeholders, free from conflict of interest, to study the pros and cons and options for legalization of possession, cultivation and/or sale, including government or not for profit monopoly options.”

If you think that sounds like typical governmental doublespeak, you’re not alone. A task force convening a task force to study a topic that is only under recommendation sounds at best like putting the cart before the horse, and at worst, a done deal.

Yet it also sounds like there may be a whisper of chance for discussion on a topic that will touch every North Carolinian — including those in the mountains.

How the voices of thousands of North Carolinians will get there from here is not clear, and worse, is being done on an expedited timetable. Although the NCTFREICJ — government agencies do love their acronyms — task force has extended its deadline to release full recommendations to Cooper, that extension will elapse on Dec. 15.

Before then, Watauga, Ashe, Avery and our friends and neighbors to the west and south need to be part of the conversation.

To view the most recent public meeting, visit the North Carolina Department of Justice’s YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/user/NCAGO. Information on previous recommendations and other Task Force action is available at https://ncdoj.gov/trec/.

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