National polling shows growing support for marijuana legalization, with 64 percent of Americans now in favor of it. Support has increased by 14 points since 2011, and even 51 percent of Republicans say medical marijuana should be made legal.
In North Carolina, the picture is similar. Tar Heels overwhelmingly want to see medical marijuana legalized. In an Elon University poll, 83 percent of Democrats and independent voters supported medical marijuana legalization, with Republicans at 73 percent approval. At the same time, 45 percent of North Carolinians already support legalizing recreational use.
By ducking the issue, Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly have sided with opponents of legalization, putting themselves at peril. Democrats, on the other hand, have taken steps to put legalization on the agenda, including legislation sponsored last year by Senator Terry van Duyn. van Duyn is currently polling constituents in Facebook conversations about her plans to reintroduce the legislation this year.
The benefits of legalization are indisputable. Legal marijuana would be a huge tax windfall for our state, which would allow us to eliminate the scourge of the NC Education Lottery. That’s something Republicans have talked about for years. But even more important, legalized marijuana would allow us to stop spending more than a billion each year on mass incarceration and ridiculously ineffective law enforcement. These dollars could be redirected to fight the opioid epidemic and expanded mental health treatment.
Legalization doesn’t require embracing the hyper-commercialization model Colorado has adopted. A less invasive approach for North Carolina would likely make more sense, where the right of individuals to medicate themselves isn’t overwhelmed by corporate greed. That’s a “how” question, which must be addressed once we agree to move forward.
And go forward we will. Jeff Sessions notwithstanding, the momentum for ending prohibition is building, with huge implications for electoral politics. Red states are rising up, and if Republicans stay their obstructionist course in North Carolina, their party will lose a generation of millennials, who are already voting with their feet against the backwards policies of the NC GOP. Whether Democrats can capitalize on this megatrend depends on individual candidates stepping up to lead the decriminalization movement.
Our November elections may very well be a referendum on legalization of medical marijuana. Governor Cooper and AG Stein won’t be on the ballot, but their support for legalization could galvanize critical voting blocs -- millennials, people of color, and progressives -- to register and turn out for Democrats in record numbers.
This train is leaving the station and, in the long run, only one party will get credit for taking a responsible, sane approach to legalization. Democrats must own this issue.