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Local officials weigh in on legal marijuana

On Jan. 15, The Smoky Mountain News contacted almost every elected official in Haywood County for whom an email address was listed with the county’s board of elections. Around half failed to respond, but those who did were sometimes too verbose for print, so an excerpt from their response was used in the Jan. 23 edition of The Smoky Mountain News. In the interest of transparency, their full responses are included here.

N.C. GENERAL ASSEMBLY

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin

It’s too early to make a judgment. I’d like to wait and see what happens with experiments in Colorado, Washington, California. I would not support a referendum.

Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville

I do not support legalization of cannabis in North Carolina. Let's call it what it is – marijuana is a gateway drug. Too many families are forever broken through drugs in our counties.

Colorado has said multiple times in the news they made a wrong choice in legalizing marijuana, from the accidents on the road to the families it destroys.

I hear, "Oh it's just for medical reasons that we want recreational marijuana." You can purchase CBD oil online, and get a good grade delivered to your home. The substance to get a "high" is removed. Why would we want to add more problems for our law enforcement and more addiction treatment centers?

No, I would not support a referendum either.

Therefore, I do not have to give any thought to the taxation on marijuana. North Carolina is booming because we have lowered taxes, cut corporate tax rates, working everyday to help our citizens get jobs, better education and better roads in our state.

Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville

It’s not at the top of my agenda. As you know I have campaigned on education and healthcare and universal broadband, that’s where I am putting my energy. I tell you, constituents are talking about this, it certainly part of the public conversation I am listening to. There’s people for it for healthcare reasons, there’s people for recreational reasons, there’s people that think it will solve the revenue and tax problems we have, you’ll hear all kinds of things.

What’s happening across the nation that I am paying attention to and I think North Carolina is paying attention to, and I hope citizens across my district are open-minded and paying attention – but I don’t think it’s going to be a top issue in this legislative session at we’re coming into. I can’t imagine it being so in North Carolina. We have a divided government, have a governor with the veto, we have a lot of issues along the lines of the priorities I’ve said – we’ve got to expand Medicaid, got to improve our school systems, we’ve got to get the infrastructure of the 21st century to the people.

Now, we will be listening to what’s going on in California and their experiences, what the consequences of this are. I mean, what are the pros and cons from real experiences across the nation, rather than just people’s opinions?

We’re actually in a good spot to North Carolina to get some real results before we jump in. North Carolina’s always been a little conservative on issues like this, and I think they’ll continue to be. The short of it is, don’t expect anything that happen right away.

We did legalize marijuana oil for medical purposes in North Carolina, so we’ve got our toe in the medical side as well, so that’s sort of where we stand. Again, I’m listening and I am watching the consequences across the nation, the experiment with this concept, this product, however you want to say it.

The law enforcement community has a big interest in it, the medical community has a big interest in it, public health community has a big interest in it, the business community has a big interest in it, citizens of every stripe, pro and con have a big interest in it, but I think they are little like me, they are watching to see what happens across the country, they may not be against it or for it yet. They’re listening and watching and I am open-minded and listening as well.

HAYWOOD COUNTY

Commission Chairman Kevin Ensley

 I would not be in favor of recreational marijuana. The cons far outweigh the pros, as Colorado is now seeing. The sheriff told me he was in a meeting in Colorado and the law enforcement there told him the tax revenues did not cover the costs that the recreational marijuana caused.

I would not support an ordinance. There has been no, zip, zero, nothing, nada in the way of any support for recreational marijuana from the community I associate with.

I would be inclined to support a very heavily regulated use of medical marijuana mainly in the market of CBD oil or other derived substances to threat chronic illnesses. I suffer from multiple sclerosis, and I know that people with MS have found relief from their MS symptoms so I can see the possible benefits from research of using medical marijuana. But it would have to be heavily regulated. I have used CBD oil for relief of spasticity but because it is not produced in every state, it is very expensive. So I use other meds which are cheaper but come with side effects. I did not experience those with CBD oil. However, recreational marijuana should never be legal.

Commissioner Brandon Rogers

 I would oppose legalization of this drug as recreational use and would oppose a resolution in support as such. Users can develop dependence or addiction through ways similar to other drugs of abuse including alcohol and tobacco.

According to the URMC [University of Rochester Medical Center] symptoms of use are:

- Loss of coordination, making it difficult, even dangerous, to perform tasks like driving a car

- False sense of time

- Trouble thinking and problem solving that can also affect driving

- Unable to tell the difference between oneself and others

- Anxiety or panic reactions or being overly suspicious and distrustful

I would not support an ordinance for legalization of this drug for recreational use because of the harmful effects. It affects short-term memory and the ability to perform difficult tasks. Some stronger types of the drug have shown that even simple tasks can be difficult.

Because of the drug’s effects on the ability to understand and on reaction time, users are more involved in car crashes than people that don’t use the drug. There is a strong link between drug use, unsafe sex and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Under the influence of this drug, students may find it hard to study and learn because it hurts the ability to concentrate and pay attention.

Marijuana smoke contains some of the same compounds that cause cancer like tobacco, sometimes in higher concentrations.

Commissioner Tommy Long

I was in the company of several elected officials recently and frankly I was disappointed at some who didn’t plan to respond to your question. I guess for fear of retribution at the polls or their constituents. I feel as an elected person, by the people, it’s my duty to speak. There are exceptions, but not in this case. I hope those folks change their mind and speak to this question.

I was elected last fall and ran on the ticket as a diverse candidate with life experience in multiple fields. And I will try and answer accordingly. The first two questions are similar and I will answer those together.

My answers are based on the combination of my real life experiences in industry, agriculture, my personal faith, community, civic – and now, thanks to the vote of the people – local government.

My answer is no. Here is why. Marijuana is used in medicine to reduce pain, relax and put one in a restful state. Basically to “put you out of your mind and put you out of your misery.”

These are good things for those in pain and chronically ill. I myself have been in pain so severe that I would have literally took anything to knock me out. Morphine did the trick in a couple life experiences for me. So thank you for holding our discussion to “recreational” use.

In the real world can we really separate “recreational” marijuana from the public realm? In theory yes, but reality says we can’t. We haven’t been successful with prescription drugs that are supposed to be “controlled” or other detrimental substances that supposedly have been pushed on us by money-grubbers or folks who care nothing about public health.

Marijuana in industry? No. It’s a nightmare when someone comes into work on Monday morning with residual marijuana in their system, maybe from the parking lot. They can’t be trusted to make sound decisions to ensure their safety and their co-workers’ safety. I personally have witnessed this. Currently where I work, we need help. Potential employees routinely cannot pass the drug test in order to come to work. They miss out on high pay and health insurance due to marijuana. The government loses out on state and federal tax revenue and eventually every other working taxpayer is burdened by paying more to cover them at some point. Lack of productivity, loss of life in accidents and property damage due to unsound judgments are a direct result of cannabis use.

Marijuana in Agriculture? Many including the representative from Kentucky push for and have succeeded in the legalization of marijuana strictly for agricultural economic reasons. I remember a comment told to me by a close friend “a statesman looks out for future generations, a politician looks out for the next election.” Why do we have politicians in D.C. serving 6 and 8 terms? I ask, “Do I love people more than money? Do I love others more than myself or my reelection?” Yes I do, and my answer to marijuana is no.

Personal community and civic exposure: everyone of adult age I’m sure has had some personal exposure to marijuana use or the effects of it. Here are a few of mine.

I have had multiple fences torn down by drivers who were stoned out of their head. On two specific wrecks, the marijuana was in the vehicle and in the impaired driver.

I have missed time from work (unpaid) to do fence repair from accidents. On more than one occasion, the driver ran away, the vehicle was reported stolen the next day and/or no insurance left me holding the bag for thousands of dollars of property damage. Guess who would have been liable had my livestock caused others property damage when they escaped? Me, or the uninsured portion of my insurance carrier. And everybody’s insurance premiums go up, up, up. So again my answer is no.

Taxes? The very utterance of the phrase “sin tax” is telling and embarrassing to our civility as a society. Would I willfully and knowingly “set a trap” for my neighbor just to fleece him or her of their money in the form of a “sin tax?” My answer is no. A trap that I know will allow him or her to put secondhand marijuana smoke into an infant or small child in his or her home? A trap that enables a man to put a baby in a microwave and press the start button? A trap that would cause a parent to wrap a toddler in a blanket and put it in a deep freezer? A trap that puts more impaired drivers on a highway where my wife, children, grandchildren and loved ones drive? This innocent blood would be on my hands for allowing it and my answer is a resounding NO!

I need to love people more, not set death traps for them and others just for a few dollars in our tax coffers.

To those who say “We’ve already got it, we may as well get the taxes,” I would ask, do two wrongs make a right? To those who say “make it legal and our jails and courts would empty” – to those I would say, stop smoking dope! Your judgment is impaired! What’s next legalize, armed robbery and breaking and entering? Sometimes you have to have guts to love people and just say NO!

Finally, my faith in relation to marijuana: everyone chooses their faith, or lack of. It’s the freedom we have in America. And it is our individual faith that guides us. We can’t cram our faith down others’ throats, no matter how great we think our faith is. It’s a free choice and its personal – you make up your mind about your faith and you live with it and yes, you die with it.

So speaking personally to all cannabis lovers and users with out cramming, I love you and I confess, I tried something years ago. I tasted it and it was good. It put me on the most incredible high! What did I try? It was the Lord and I’ve never come down from the high he gives me. It’s a perpetual high. It makes me love everybody and my love for my neighbor tells me to vote no on marijuana. Marijuana is detrimental to individuals and it bleeds over into and invades other innocent people’s lives.

I don’t know as commissioner if I will ever be faced with a vote on this issue, time will tell.

My response to the other two questions about who gets the taxes is a moot point with me due to my “no” answers. If the people voted it in, I would face the issue when presented.

I like to have fun and have a good time as much as anyone. I’ve watched movies and seen funny satire about marijuana users. I’ve read quotes from famous people and laughed, but in nearly all those movies, those people, the end result wasn’t good and at times ends in heartbreak. Look closely friends, and make sure the pitch coming from activist groups, lobbyists and money-grubbers is not a curve ball.

Commissioner Mark Pless

I am opposed personally to marijuana use, however since being elected to office I realize my opinion is not always the opinion of everyone who I represent. That being said, I researched about what effect alcohol has had on society, since it was once illegal and now legal.

When prohibition was first established the reasons were commonly reported as – in the 1800s men enjoyed drinking alcohol to such degree that women and children were neglected greatly. It was felt that prohibition of alcohol manufacture, sales and consumption was the only possible solution. So the 18th amendment was added. Then the Great Depression struck in 1929 and the government started looking for tax revenue. So now the decision was made in 1933 that alcohol manufacturing, sale and consumption was needed so it could produce new tax revenue.

Everyone knew that being illegal didn't prevent manufacturing, sale or consumption – it just kept the government from getting any money from it. Today there are 88,000 deaths attributed to alcohol consumption, which makes it the 3rd highest in preventable deaths.

Sale and manufacturing of alcohol does increase tax revenue. Given the costs of Medical care spent each year treating diseases that come from alcohol consumption, we haven't gained money. Given our society seems to favor free healthcare, if that day ever comes the tax collected certainly would not come close to the amount paid out by the government for medical care due to alcohol consumption.

That is a long way to say I couldn't support legalization of marijuana.

First is the immediate concern that it would affect the safety of everyone in Haywood County when people drive, operate machinery or even prepare food at restaurants while under the effects of legal marijuana.

Second there are still a lot of unrevealed ways the body could become diseased from regular use of marijuana. Cigarette smoking is a prime example of how over the years, something that began with our first American ancestors now is proven to cause early death and numerous health issues.

Third and lastly, government is always looking for new taxes sources when the real problem is spending. There is no reason to look at marijuana as a new tax source because in 10 years or less the tax revenue will no longer be a bonus to alleviate tax deficits portrayed today. Everyone will be looking for another tax source because by then, the marijuana manufacturing and sales tax will not be enough.

CANTON

Mayor Zeb Smathers

As mayor, I would not lobby our elected members in Raleigh to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. I pride myself on being practical and lobbying our leaders on issues such as opioid addiction, affordable housing, gerrymandering and erasing the urban-rural divide – more important issues than a referendum on cannabis. 

I would not in introduce or support a resolution to support recreational legalization. The major reason, as with any issue, is it’s not a need advocated by our citizens. My focus remains on economic development, recreation and housing, which are issues raised by our taxpayers in Canton.  

If this issue got to a situation similar to the Brunch Bill, many more questions concerning enforcement and logistics would need to be answered before any vote was taken.  

In the situation our state leaders legalized the recreational cannabis industry, then the profits should be taxed similarly to that of alcohol and tobacco. In my opinion, the tax money should be spent toward public schools, law enforcement, roads, addiction treatment and health care.  

I do support the continued trend to decriminalize the criminal prosecution of minor cannabis charges. Time and time again, I see our citizens, especially young adults, paying the long-term costs of a short-term bad decision. We need to continue to expand our expungement laws, to reward the ones who have learned from their mistakes. Cannabis is easy to classify as a "gateway drug," but tobacco and alcohol could be easily be classified as the same. We need to continue to be innovative to see how we can resolve the situation and prevent the individual from continuing down a path towards other dangerous substance abuse issues, such as opioid addiction.

Alderwoman Kristina Smith

This is a state and federal issue, not a municipal call to make. Personally, I don't see an issue with medical marijuana, but we are still understanding what it looks like to legalize recreational use. I wouldn't lobby for or against recreational legalization. We have community challenges and opportunities within our jurisdiction to address. 

MAGGIE VALLEY

Alderman Dr. Janet Banks

This is a difficult question for me to attempt to answer as this issue is not even in the Town of Maggie Valley's kitchen at the moment.

Before legislation is even proposed, I would like solid answers from the state legislature as to how they visualize changing current laws we have on the books as to possession of a substance (amounts); state police protocols and requirements for driving under the influence and the commission of crimes; drug detection (K-9 programs) and urine testing of controlled substances for job interviews and/or Medicaid recipients.

Additionally, I want to know how you define recreational use. When and how much? On the job or at home? And lastly, how will this affect a person's motor vehicle insurance rates, health insurance rates, and life insurance rates? Extra premiums are charged for smoking, what about cannabis? 

Once these boundaries are set, I would expect a ballot measure similar to ones in other states. If it passes in NC, the state would gain a tax revenue base and decriminalize persons from serving jail or prison terms for possession of small amounts of a previously controlled substance. I am neutral on it passing, mostly because I feel that we have too many other important municipal issues to address here in Western North Carolina.

I would not be lobbying my local representatives on this issue unless the people in my town felt strongly one way or the other. As Maggie Valley did before with the Brunch Bill, we would have a public hearing, bring it up for board discussion, and vote. If the public hearing indicated that the townspeople felt strongly in one direction, I would bring up a motion to express their view. 

I would hope that the increased tax revenues, instead of going into the general fund, could be earmarked toward providing and increasing health care services for all North Carolinians, as there are significant health problems associated with long term cannabis usage.

CLYDE

Alderman Diane Fore

In response to your questions regarding legalized recreational cannabis sales, I’m afraid at this time I would not have a statement. I feel that I would have to better educate myself on the topic and I would have to consider the population in Clyde and the citizens that I represent.

In Clyde, we have recently dealt with an item that challenged one of our ordinances. It has been a true learning experience in attempting to face all the challenges created by one person wanting to change the ordinance to suit his requests. In the end, I was amazed at the “silent majority,” which were many of the citizens that have lived in Clyde their entire lives. If I learned anything it is “change is a challenge to many and the wheels of change turn very slowly in a well-established base of citizens in a small town.

WAYNESVILLE

Mayor Gavin Brown

I have not considered this issue enough to have an opinion that I would feel comfortable giving other than to say I favor legalization. If I were making the decision I would add a second component and outlaw tobacco products!

Alderman Jon Feichter

Drug policy—over and above the issue of the decriminalization of marijuana—is an important one for our county, state, and nation. As you’re no doubt aware, this country has spent an estimated $1 trillion on the war on drugs since 1971. If the investment had resulted in significant reductions in the manufacture, sale and use of illegal drugs, that’d be one thing. But to my mind, we are as far away from solving this problem as we were almost 50 years ago. It is imperative we develop new strategies to combat a plague that affects all of us and the first step, in my opinion, is how we deal with marijuana.

Therefore, I do support legalization of marijuana for both medicinal and recreational use and believe it should be taxed and controlled in the same way alcohol is. I believe the existing ABC Commission model could be expanded to include marijuana, so we won’t have to reinvent the wheel to accommodate its distribution, purchase and use.

As far as what to do with the revenue that is generated, I support a portion of that going to the general fund, and believe some of that should be redistributed to the municipalities that allow sales. But I also strongly believe that the most significant share should go to provide increased funding for education and treatment programs. 

If the legislature were to legalize marijuana for recreational use, I think the model followed in the Brunch Bill is a good one. I am eminently comfortable with the notion that the citizens in each municipality should get to decide whether they want to allow the sale in their jurisdiction or not.

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