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When, not if: The case for and against cannabis in NC

When, not if: The case for and against cannabis in NC

With the recent actions of Michigan and Vermont, 72 million people in 10 U.S. states — 23 percent of the population — can now purchase recreational marijuana in a retail setting, after decades of strict prohibition and despite a lingering federal ban. 

North Carolina isn’t one of those states, but it soon could be if a recent trend towards the legalization of recreational marijuana continues. 

Not everyone in the state or in the small towns scattered about the Smokies are high on the idea, but as the tide of marijuana legalization turns nationally, what does N.C.’s future, for or against, look like?


The path to now

The recreational use of marijuana throughout antiquity garnered little notice until the 1850s, when patent medicines with secret formulas hawked by snake-oil hucksters attracted the attention of many U.S. states, which subsequently enacted consumer protection measures known as “poison laws.” 

North Carolina was one of many states to define marijuana as “poison,” but it wasn’t until the well-known efforts of Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the 1930s, that the longstanding stigma surrounding its usage began to take hold. 

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A small wave of statewide decriminalization efforts began to occur in the early 1970s starting in Oregon and Texas, with North Carolina close behind in 1977. To date, marijuana has been decriminalized in 13 states that haven’t already legalized recreational use. 

The term “decriminalized” doesn’t mean “legal,” but rather that criminal penalties associated with the possession or use of marijuana products have been relaxed, comparatively speaking.

SEE ALSO: Cannabis legalization under study in Cherokee

“Just since I’ve been practicing, [penalties] have been relaxed even in that 15 year period, so now basic misdemeanor possession of paraphernalia is a class 3 misdemeanor,” said District Attorney Ashley Welch. “Most of the time, you don’t even qualify for a court-appointed lawyer with that because your punishment is a fine and [court] costs.”

In North Carolina, possession of anything under 1.5 ounces is a misdemeanor.

“Essentially if you abide by certain terms and conditions and you don’t get in trouble anymore, usually a judge will sentence you to community service, sometimes a drug test,” Welch said. “After a period of time, you can get that expunged. That’s true even for a felony. The drug trafficking in marijuana, you’ve got to have an enormous amount of marijuana to get to that point, and even then you’re not looking at significant active time. If you’re trafficking in cocaine, for example, your mandatory minimum at the bottom level is going to be 70 months active. With marijuana, I believe it’s 44 months. You’re dealing with a big difference in punishment.”

Drug crimes are prioritized in that manner because of how the state categorizes the drug itself. 

Chapter 90 of the North Carolina General Statutes is known as the “North Carolina Controlled Substances Act” — a mind-boggling array of illegal substances and chemical formulae defined, outlined and ranked in terms of potential both for addiction and for medicinal use. 

The higher the former and the lower the latter means in theory greater danger and therefore greater penalties. Schedule I includes what the legislature has accepted as the most hazardous drugs, like heroin, fentanyl, LSD and MDMA.

Marijuana and Tetrahydrocannabinols (THC), the main psychoactive component of marijuana, are the only two items listed North Carolina’s lowest category, Schedule VI, which states that there is “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, or a relatively low potential for abuse in terms of risk to public health and potential to produce psychic or physiological dependence liability based upon present medical knowledge, or a need for further and continuing study to develop scientific evidence of its pharmacological effects.”

As of this year, 47 states including North Carolina had acknowledged some form of currently accepted medical use, which has been shown to be a precursor to recreational legalization.

In North Carolina, a 2014 bill titled “Hope 4 Haley and Friends” allowed for the use of marijuana extract with THC levels less than 0.3 percent by weight to treat intractable seizure disorders. In 2015, an amendment to that bill raised the percentage to 0.9 percent, still far below the threshold of psychoactive impact.

California was the first state in the nation to legalize medicinal use in 1996. Two years later it was followed by Alaska, Oregon and Washington. During the first decade of the 21st century, eight additional states followed suit, and by 2014, more than 30 states had allowed some form of medicinal marijuana use.

In the first seven states that legalized recreational marijuana after having already legalized medicinal marijuana, that process took on average 14.75 years. But the three most recent states to do so, Vermont, Michigan and Massachusetts, took 12 and 10 and 4 years, respectively. 

It’s clear the pace of recreational legalization in the United States is picking up, making recreational marijuana legalization in North Carolina a “when, not if” question that’s largely postulated on another question — why?


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The green economy

Nearly 200,000 people are now employed across the nation in the recreational marijuana industry; aside from the wage boon in an era of historically low unemployment, substantial tax revenues are collected even though states with legal recreational marijuana have all adopted differing approaches to its taxation. 

On Jan. 1, 2014, Colorado began retail sales of recreational marijuana after instituting medical use back in 2000. Both medical and recreational products were subject to the state’s 2.9 percent sales tax, but recreational products were also tagged with an additional 10 percent sales tax. 

Beginning July 1, 2017, recreational marijuana was no longer subject to the 2.9 percent sales tax, but the 10 percent tax was increased to 15 percent. There’s also a $50 per ounce excise tax levied on business-to-business sales, like from a cultivator or processor to a retailer. 

State revenue from these taxes totaled $67 million in 2014 but grew to $247 million during 2017 and as of November 2018 was $245 million. 

Since 2014, that all adds up to a staggering $884 billion in new revenue, which is disbursed per state law. An April 2018 story in Denver weekly newspaper Westword outlines how $209 million from the 2016-17 fiscal year was spent.

The first $40 million of the excise tax goes toward school construction, the rest into a permanent fund for public schools, a $32 million contribution. 

SEE ALSO: From the ground up: Appalachian Growers digging into hemp industry

From the retail tax, 10 percent goes back to the local governments that allow retail sales, a total of $15 million. The other 90 percent — $84 million — went into the state’s general fund. Of that 90 percent, $30 million goes into another state public school fund and the remaining $54 million — along with the 2.9 percent medical sales tax — goes into something called the marijuana cash fund. 

That fund appropriated $41 million to education and public health, $32 million to the Colorado Department of Human Services, $16 million to affordable housing programs, $6 million to local law enforcement and $3 million to public safety.

Those figures represent government spending of roughly $157 total per person since recreational marijuana sales began in 2014, or about $44 per person in 2017.

A similar per-capita spending figure for 2017 of $43 was distilled from data provided by the State of Washington, where recreational sales made by more than 500 retail licensees began six months after Colorado in July 2014. Revenues there grew from $66 million in 2015 to $189 million the next year and $319 million in 2017.

About 30 percent of that, or $96 million, went to the state’s general fund, with 45 percent, about $146 million, going to health care services. Education got about 10 percent, with smaller shares going to cities allowing retail sales. 

Colorado’s taxation structure is a bit more complex than Washington’s straight 37 percent sales tax, but Oregon’s allows for some degree of local control; a 17 percent sales tax can be bumped up to 20 percent by municipalities. 

All in all, Oregon generated $70 million in retail marijuana tax revenue during fiscal year 2017 and $82 million in 2018, or about $20 per person. 

Oregon assigns 40 percent of that revenue to the common school fund, 20 percent to mental health, alcoholism and drug services, 15 percent to the state police, 10 percent to both cities and counties for enforcement as well as 5 percent for the state’s alcohol and drug abuse prevention program. 

Like Oregon, Alaska began retail sales in 2016, however Alaska’s relatively miniscule population and strong anti-tax, pro-local control legacy reflect a completely different approach to both the collection and disbursement of recreational marijuana tax revenue. 

There’s no state sales tax in Alaska, and marijuana is treated the same way. There is a $50 per ounce excise tax, and municipalities can levy sales taxes, like Anchorage’s 5 percent stipulation, which was projected to bring in about $3.5 million this year — a princely sum, compared to the state’s total haul of $1.7 million for fiscal year 2017. 

Of that state revenue, half flows directly into the state’s general fund, and half goes to a program specifically designed to reduce criminal recidivism, amounting to total state spending of about $2.27 per person, per year. 

Alaska doesn’t tax recreational marijuana much because it doesn’t have to — the state’s 740,000 citizens already shoulder a relatively low $1,042 average yearly tax burden, compared to Oregon’s $2,698, Washington’s $3,057 and Colorado’s $2,309. But Anchorage opted for the additional tax, adding an additional $8.72 in spending for each of its 401,000 metropolitan area residents.

Asheville’s metro area is larger than Anchorage’s by just 27,000 people, and North Carolinians each paid an average of $2,582 in state taxes in 2016. 

Averaging out the effective tax rates of the four widely disparate systems used by Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, about $35 in recreational marijuana tax revenue per resident, per year, has been demonstrated. 

Assuming comparable per person levels of retail marijuana sales, North Carolina’s 10.3 million residents could see in excess of $360 million in new tax revenue each year. 

Alternatively, using Washington’s state liquor control apparatus as a guide, that number could be much higher. In 2017, alcohol tax revenue there amounted to $206 million, against $319 million in marijuana revenue. 

If the popularity or the taxability of recreational marijuana is any indicator, North Carolina’s ABC board distributed $406 million in collected revenues during fiscal year 2017, which would suggest North Carolina marijuana tax revenue collections upward of a half-billion dollars.

It’s more than just a fiscal analogy — some existing state liquor control boards have found themselves tasked with additional responsibility over recreational marijuana, like the Alaska Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, the Washington State Liquor and Marijuana Board and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

The Chairman of Asheville’s Alcoholic Beverage Commission, Lewis Isaac, was quoted in the Asheville Citizen-Times on Dec. 12 telling city council members the previous day that he assumed the ABC would “probably oversee the sales and distribution” of marijuana if it comes “because we are already a part of that control structure” with alcohol. 

Isaac’s remarks were made in the context of explaining why the ABC is including extra space for marijuana in a new $3 million, 40,000-square-foot warehouse necessitated by growing liquor sales. 

If North Carolina’s ABC does become part of that structure as Isaac thinks it will, the model for disbursing recreational marijuana revenues is already close at hand — from the state ABC’s $406 million windfall in 2017, $306 million went to the general fund, $74 million to cities and counties, $17 million to the state’s distribution center, $12 million toward alcohol education, $8 million to local law enforcement, $3 million to counties for rehab and $2 million to the state DHHS. 

For some states, the revenue side of the equation is hard to resist when measured against 2016 tax collections — similar to Washington, North Carolina’s 2016 budget included $26 billion in tax collections, but Washington’s $22 billion in tax receipts includes more than $319 million in recreational marijuana revenue. 

Oregon collects around $11 billion a year in taxes, to which it will now add another $80 million a year or so from recreational marijuana taxes. Colorado takes in about $13 billion in taxes a year, of which almost $250 million a year comes from recreational marijuana. 

SEE ALSO: ‘Wild West’ agriculture: N.C. Extension tests out cannabis production


The cost of the green economy

New revenue sources of such scale are rare for most governments, however significant concern exists as to whether or not these income streams are penny-wise but pound-foolish. 

“I think there’s a lot of other issues we need to look at in addition to just how much money it’s going to make us,” said Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed. “We could sell a lot of things and make money [but] does that mean it’s good for the community?”

In addition to the purported social benefits of the tax revenue, proponents of legal marijuana have claimed it would lower prison populations and allow law enforcement to focus on violent crimes, all while reducing traffic fatalities, suppressing teen usage and even helping to ameliorate the opioid crisis. 

Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher doesn’t think that’s the case. 

“My opinion regarding legalization of marijuana for recreational use is that I’m opposed to it,” said Christopher. “I am very focused on the issues surrounding addiction in our communities — the opioid epidemic, the continuing prevalence of meth use, prevention efforts like education and abstinence training, rehabilitation efforts and recovery. That’s what we’re talking about. That will continue to be my focus. With this being our current climate, I can’t wrap my mind around supporting the recreational use of a substance that has the propensity to alter your mind or thinking, or even lead to addiction.”

Christopher’s office logged 191 detention center bookings involving marijuana charges in 2018, including 47 of their own. The rest come from jurisdictions like Hollingsed’s. 

But just 27 of those bookings were for standalone possession only, while the rest included other charges. The vast majority of those standalone cases involved no jail time, so marijuana arrests aren’t exactly clogging up the county detention center at $77 a night. They’re also not clogging up the courts, according to DA Welch. 

“We don’t get that much. Certainly it is on the docket, but your straight-up possession of marijuana, we don’t have all that often. It’s usually combined with drug paraphernalia or often times it’ll be a felony level,” she said. “What we’ve been doing for years is offering deferred prosecution programs on those lower-level charges, particularly if it’s your first offense.”

Welch was careful to note that it’s her duty not to opine on the law, but instead to uphold it, as was Hollingsed, but both indicated that legal marijuana probably wouldn’t save their respective departments much money, if any.

In fact, Hollingsed said that based on his observation of Colorado’s experiment with marijuana, he thought it might end up costing his department more. 

“One of the other arguments is it’s going to let law enforcement focus on other areas instead of focusing on marijuana-type crimes. Talking with the DEA and others out there, their focus on marijuana has actually increased,” he said. “Now that it’s legal in Colorado, people are moving into Colorado from all the other states and even from other countries, creating these large grow operations and distributing out to other states. I have family that lives in Nebraska right over the border from Colorado. It’s a huge issue for them now.”

It’s precisely those types of unintended consequences, he said, that should give states considering legalization pause. 

“I think in Colorado it all came down to ‘Look at the money that it’s going to bring in, the revenue side, look what it’s going to do for the state,’” he said. “On the backside, we’re telling people it’s OK to use marijuana recreationally, we’re going to bring it into the state, but we’re paying on the back end three to four times that revenue in new treatment centers. So were saying let’s do it, but then we’re funding treatment centers saying we need to get off of it.”

Backing up claims made by proponents and opponents of retail marijuana legalization isn’t easy; or, rather, it’s very easy, because what’s been written about the implementation of legal marijuana depends very much on who’s holding the pen — a lingering testimonial of the aggressive advocacy on both sides of the issue. 

According to the Drug Policy Alliance’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey issued in January 2018, almost 22 percent of U.S. high school students had used marijuana in the previous month, and that rate has remained relatively stable for more than two decades. Usage rates in Alaska, Colorado and Washington were similar. 

However, an extensive report produced in September 2018 by a multi-agency consortium of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming called the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area says that Colorado children aged 12 and older use marijuana at a rate 85 percent higher than the national average. 

The DPA also reports that there is an association between legal marijuana use and decreased harm from opiates; overdose death rates in states with marijuana access are nearly 25 percent lower than in states without, and abuse-related hospitalizations are also 23 percent lower. After recreational legalization in Colorado, a reduction of 0.7 overdose deaths per month across the state was seen, as well as a decline in “the decades-long upward trend of overdoses” plaguing the Centennial State, according to the report. 

HIDTA reports that emergency department visits related to marijuana increased 52 percent after the legalization, and marijuana-related hospitalizations increased 148 percent.

DPA says that in both Colorado and Washington, a decline was seen in alcohol and drug-related DWI arrests. HIDTA says that marijuana related traffic deaths increased 151 percent just as all Colorado traffic deaths increased 35 percent, and that the percentage of all marijuana-related traffic deaths increased from 11.43 pre-legalization to 21.3 percent post. 

Dozens of competing reports produced since 2012 by agencies with obvious agendas all take their own slanted views at the statistics, clouding what should be a relatively straightforward analysis of the cost-benefit analysis of legalization; luckily, in North Carolina, we elect local and state leaders to weed through available evidence and make those decisions on our behalf. 


The path to tomorrow

The pros and cons of recreational marijuana legalization have been weighed in more than just the states that have approved it, but the outcome always seems to depend on who’s holding the scales. 

All 10 states where recreational marijuana is legal, except for one, legalized it by ballot question, leaving it up to the state’s voters, not legislators, to decide. Vermont became the first state to use the legislature as a vehicle for legalization. That journey is similar to that of medical legalization, where nine of the first 10 states also passed it by ballot measure. 

A 2017 Elon University poll claimed that while 80 percent of North Carolina residents support medical use, 45 percent support recreational legalization. 

Eight of the next 40 medical approvals were legislative in origin; most bills become law through the typical process of being filed, moving through committees to the floor, and then to the other chamber and finally the governor’s desk.

That involves some author or sponsor — and then dozens of elected officials — putting their names, their reputations and their re-elections on the line to support what is still a contentious subject, especially in the Bible Belt South where alcohol remains controversial and the opioid crisis has community leaders wary of intoxicants, in general. 

Maybe that’s why the other nine states where recreational marijuana is legal chose a different route — statewide ballot referendums, similar to North Carolina’s recent voter ID question. 

On one hand, a referendum relieves legislators of the burdensome expenditure of political capital to shepherd a bill — any bill — through the sausage factory that is the legislative process. 

On the other hand, a referendum in North Carolina cannot occur without the authorization of the legislature, which means someone expending political capital shepherding a bill through the sausage factory.

The important difference is that the referendum bill isn’t advocating for a controversial subject like voter ID; it’s a simple bill asking voters to decide. That decision could be binding, or not. 

“It depends on what the act passed by the General Assembly says,” said Robert Joyce, a professor at the UNC School of Government. “The General Assembly could make the results of the referendum binding, or it could provide that a ‘yes’ result in the referendum merely authorizes the General Assembly to act but does not require it to do so.”

That referendum could also mandate local buy-in, or not. 

“Once again, it depends on what the act passed by the General Assembly says,” Joyce said. “The law could provide for a general statewide system or it could leave discretion in cities and counties.”

Any which way, it all depends on state legislators first and foremost. Gov. Roy Cooper did not respond to requests for comment on this story, nor did Senate President Phil Berger or House Speaker Tim Moore. Haywood County’s entire legislative delegation, however, did. 

“It’s too early to make a judgment,” said five-term N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, Jan. 17 at an elected officials reception held by the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce. Davis has always held himself to be a data-driven decision maker, owed to his medical training, and as a dentist is well aware of how pharmaceuticals affect the human body. He’s been active locally in addressing the opioid crisis, and said he’d adopt a wait-and-see attitude while eyeing the ongoing experiment in Colorado and California. 

Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, is firm in her opposition.

“I do not support legalization of marijuana in North Carolina,” said Presnell. “Let's call it what it is — marijuana is a gateway drug. Too many families are forever broken through drugs in our counties.”

Presnell said that Colorado has admitted to making “a wrong choice” in legalization, citing broken families and motor vehicle misuse. 

“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,” she said. “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?”

Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, echoes Davis in that he wants to hear how recreational legalization transpires in other states first.

“It’s not the top of my agenda,” said Queen. “I have campaigned on education and health care and universal broadband, that’s where I am putting my energy. I tell you, constituents are talking about this, it's certainly part of the public conversation and I am listening. The short of it is, don’t expect anything to happen right away.”

All three of Haywood’s lawmakers — Davis, Presnell and Queen — voted for both the “Hope 4 Haley and Friends” act in 2014 and its subsequent 2015 amendment. 


Local reaction

When — not if — recreational marijuana legislation appears in the General Assembly, Haywood’s representatives in Raleigh will hear from the folks back home, including local elected officials and the business community. 

“At this time the Chamber has not taken a position on recreational legalization of marijuana, however, it is time for the discussions to be held at both local and state levels,” said CeCe Hipps, president of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce.   “There are many aspects to the discussion; total legalization, partial legalization or legalization for medicinal use. Each needs to be researched, debated and fully vetted on the negative and positive impact before any decision is made regarding legalization, either total or partial.”

By comparison, Asheville’s Chamber President Kit Cramer told The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer and The Durham Herald-Sun last October that “North Carolina should make marijuana legal and then tax it the way we do alcohol or tobacco.”

Local government officials could also lobby state legislators for or against, privately, or publicly in the form of a resolution. In the event of a state-authorized Brunch Bill-style implementation, every local government unit would need to vote to approve a retail environment.

It’s not just a thought experiment; a December opinion by the News & Observer urges proactivity in the face of inevitability, and The Daily Tar Heel, among others, reports that Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg, has plans to introduce into the General Assembly — yet again — more measures supporting decriminalization, medical expansion, criminal expungement and recreational implementation. 

As could be expected, opinions vary greatly among those who responded to a Jan. 15 Smoky Mountain News poll on if and how recreational marijuana sales in North Carolina should be implemented. 

“I would not be in favor of recreational marijuana,” said Haywood County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kevin Ensley. “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.”

Ensley, however, added that he both supports and has used CBD.

“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 treat chronic illnesses,” said Ensley. “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.”

Ensley’s Vice Chairman, Commissioner Brandon Rogers, concurs with Ensley but for slightly different reasons. 

“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,” said Rogers, citing statistics from the University of Rochester Medical Center. “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.”

Newly-elected Haywood Commissioner Tommy Long made his stance clear as well. 

“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,” Long said. “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.”

Like Long, Commissioner Mark Pless has only been on the board for a few weeks, but opposes recreational marijuana use. 

“First, 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,” he said. “Third and lastly, government is always looking for new tax 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.”

Votes from commissioners would only affect those who live in the county’s unincorporated areas, meaning all four of Haywood County’s towns would also have to determine if recreational legalization is right for their community, if given such authority in a Dillon’s Rule state. 

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

SEE ALSO: Local officials weigh in on legal marijuana

Alderman Jon Feichter was the only other Waynesville alderman to respond. 

“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,” said Feichter. “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.”

Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers said that his constituents haven’t expressed a desire for legalization, and that there are far more important issues on the table. 

“My focus remains on economic development, recreation and housing which are issues raised by our taxpayers,” he said. “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.”

Smathers, a defense attorney by trade, did say that he supports the continuing reduction of penalties associated with marijuana possession. 

“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,” he said. “Marijuana 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.”

First-term Canton Alderwoman Kristina Smith holds a view similar to that of Smathers. 

“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,” said Smith. “I wouldn't lobby for or against recreational legalization. We have community challenges and opportunities within our jurisdiction to address.”

Alderman Diane Fore was the only elected official from the Town of Clyde to respond. 

“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,” said Fore. “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.’”

It’s perhaps Maggie Valley Alderman and Mayor Pro-Temp Dr. Janet Banks that most succinctly sums up the state of local affairs, with regard to retail marijuana legalization. 

“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,” she said, lodging detailed queries related to possession amounts, DWI enforcement and drug testing on the job, as well as concerns about health, auto and life insurance rates, among others. 

“I would not be lobbying my local representatives on this issue unless the people in my town felt strongly one way or the other,” Banks said. “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.”

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