Virginia is legalizing marijuana and there’s a move towards that at the federal level too, but a prominent member of the North Carolina House of Representatives – Sarah Stevens of Mount Airy – thinks that state should avoid “reef madness.” “.
“Everyone has it – isn’t that how we got the lottery?” Stevens theorized earlier this week when discussing the implications of a recent Elon University poll showing that 54% of North Carolinians support full legalization of weed, both recreational and medicinal.
The poll results also revealed that nearly two-thirds of adults in the state do not think pot use is morally wrong and support reducing penalties for its possession, while also believing that legalization would boost the state economy.
However, Rep. Stevens — the only North Carolina lawmaker who resides in Surry County — says the recent push to do so, both federally and in neighboring Virginia, is clouding lingering concerns about marijuana use.
As a speaker pro tempore or second-ranking member of the North Carolina House of Representatives, the Mount Airy attorney is in a position to influence proposed legislation he considers. Given the push for marijuana reform elsewhere, does Stevens expect similar action in Raleigh?
“I would say I don’t, unless we have to if the feds take action,” she said. For example, national legalization of marijuana would replace state laws and incentivize states to implement distribution mechanisms.
“It makes you lazy”
In opposing full legalization, Stevens cited several points she considers relevant.
On the one hand, just as the state lottery hasn’t been a financial boon to education as some had promised, so many pitfalls come with recreational weed, says the lawmaker now in her seventh term whose 90-house district includes Surry, Alleghany and Wilkes counties.
“Interestingly, in places where they’ve legalized marijuana, they’re facing huge problems,” Stevens observed, “things they don’t talk about.”
She mentioned ongoing treatment and other issues in Colorado, the first state to approve recreational use in 2012 and allow open pot sales at dispensaries. Since it is an addictive substance, many people struggle with marijuana use disorders, as evidenced by compulsive use, which can impact all aspects of their lives.
“I understand that makes you lazy…complacent,” Stevens said of the negative impacts on productivity and the broader economy.
The veteran lawmaker also took aim at another claim, that legalizing marijuana and taxing it eliminates the presence of the black market and related criminal aspects.
“Regulation makes everything more expensive,” she explained.
“So people either buy it illegally or grow it themselves,” Stevens added. “I don’t think regulating and taxing to death is the way to go.”
Beware of Medical Marijuana
The Elon University poll further asked respondents about their support for medical marijuana, which is favored by 73% of state residents. That includes a 64-27 margin, or nearly two-thirds, among Republicans.
Stevens is also concerned about this option being adopted by various states instead of full legalization.
“The question is, how well is it done – and under what conditions do you get it?” she said of access to medical marijuana.
Stevens fears possible abuse from people who might gain access to the pot by simply pretending they are “stressed out” or playing the system.
She further indicated that legalizing marijuana for medical purposes could open the door to unscrupulous doctors certifying its use by unqualified people for a fee, or certifications obtained online without an in-person physical exam.
The amount of marijuana allowed for medical purposes is also a concern of Stevens, who referenced a proposal in the past that would have allowed users to smoke 300 marijuana cigarettes a month – an excessive amount in his view.
And the bill for that would be picked up by taxpayers for “patients” who are on Medicaid.
Proponents of medical marijuana say opioid overdoses have declined in states allowing this option, with people using marijuana as a pain-relieving alternative to opioids.
“I don’t think that’s valid,” Stevens said, based on the fact that marijuana is still considered a gateway drug in some quarters.
People can develop a tolerance to marijuana and then look for something else to boost their high, which could lead to opioids anyway, the local lawmaker suggests.
The dilemma of decriminalization
Instead of full legalization, some are embracing another option — relaxing marijuana laws or decriminalizing the substance — including North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, the top official in the enforcement of state laws.
The poll found that 67% of North Carolina residents support the idea.
Stevens favors this approach to some extent.
“We talked about making it something like a traffic ticket,” she said.
People caught with small amounts of marijuana would still face legal implications, but avoid arrest and a criminal record.
However, Stevens believes that decriminalization should not be used simply as a stepping stone to full legalization. North Carolina has already passed measures to allow people to expunge their criminal records, which it says is a tool now available in the justice system.
Regardless of what, if anything, North Carolina does with the marijuana problem, they want this to be a well thought out process.
“I think we’re smart to take the safe approach.”
Tom Joyce can be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.