North Carolina lagging behind as marijuana legalization sweeps nation


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Marijuana legalization is spreading across the country. 

More than 30 states and the District of Columbia have now legalized cannabis for either medical or recreational use.

North Carolina, however, is not one of them.

But in one North Carolina city, some are making preparations for it to become legal. 

“I’m a businessman,” Asheville Alcohol Beverage Control Board General Manager Mark Combs said. “I’m paid to think ahead, and to look after my system.”

Thinking ahead is exactly what Combs is doing. 

Combs said the Asheville ABC Board recently acquired a property with three warehouse spaces. The warehouse spaces equal 30,000 square feet, and according to Combs, have the capacity to store liquor for the next 50 years. 

While Combs said the property was bought due to growth in liquor sales, Combs said it could also be used potentially to store other products, like legalized marijuana. 

Combs added the Asheville ABC Board does not support nor oppose legalizing cannabis in North Carolina. 

Under North Carolina’s Controlled Substances Act, pot is classified as a Schedule VI drug, which is the lowest threat level.

Rep. Kelly Alexander is one lawmaker looking to remove marijuana from the controlled substances list.

In an interview in November with CBS 17, Alexander said one idea when addressing legalizing cannabis could be a local option approach similar to alcohol. 

“We have dry counties. We have wet counties,” Alexander said. “We have portions of counties that may be wet, and the rest of them are dry. All of those are driven by local option decisions either by the decisions of local-elected boards or by votes of the people.”

Jim Hickmon, a Charlotte-based attorney, would vote yes to legalizing pot in the Tar Heel State. 

“I am, and have been always, a registered Republican,” Hickmon told CBS 17. “I’m highly conservative on fiscal matters and economic matters. But when it comes to a ridiculous policy that is not benefiting anyone in our country, or our country itself, I think that’s where we have to re-examine that.”

Hickmon often travels to Palm Springs, California, a desert destination where cannabis is sold all over the city. While out in the Coachella Valley, Hickman legally uses marijuana.

“I’ve had a chronic illness for decades. I’ve been through many drug trials. One of them were successful for at least a period of time. Some of the drugs did have side effects that were literally intolerable and created an inability to sometimes function,” Hickmon said. “Cannabis actually has shown an ability to control those side effects in a way that no other prescription drug has been able to achieve.”

Hickmon believes legalizing cannabis could be a new cash crop for North Carolina. 

“This used to be king tobacco land,” Hickmon said. “The regulation of the tobacco industry has caused a void in North Carolina, that quite frankly, has not been able to caught up with yet.”

Legalization could also impact arrest rates.

According to data from the FBI, possession accounted for about 85 percent of all arrests for drug abuse violations in the U.S. More than a third of those were for possession of marijuana. 

“Is it worth the money that we’re paying to have police enforce marijuana laws when the real problem is heroin, meth, and those types of drugs that are killing people,” Hickmon said. 

But some believe legalizing recreational cannabis use could cause more harm than good, particularly when it comes to driving under the influence.

“The prevalence of medical marijuana in this state, we’ve seen a real uptick in the number of marijuana-related fatalities, where we prosecute cases, typically manslaughter cases,” Riverside County, California District Attorney Mike Hestrin said in a 2016 interview. “I only expect that to increase when you have sort of an open season, where marijuana is legal for recreational purposes.”

For now, Combs said the main focus is selling alcohol, but they are preparing for whatever the future brings.

“The states that are legalizing it, we’re talking,” Combs said. “We’re asking questions. We’re curious as to what they’re doing. What’s working? What’s not working? What are best practices? So that we have a working knowledge of what we could expect, whether it’s an ABC system, or whether it’s franchised, or whether it’s state-operated. It’s good to have that base knowledge so that we can go from there, and not be surprised.”

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