For a movement like cannabis legalization that enjoys broad, across-the-board support all around the country, there are certain states and regions where there is precious little information regarding the current legal status of cannabis or the recent efforts to push for legalization.
And when it comes to a dearth of attention to the job, the South is a region that always seems top the list. And while it’s true that things tend to move just a little bit slower down in the Land of the Pines (and this is by design, by the way – if your weather and people were as nice as ours, you wouldn’t feel the need to be in such a hurry either), one could easily get the misconception that there’s a lack of interest in cannabis legalization. But as a North Carolinian, I can attest that nothing could be further from the truth.
And so, for this entry of the Cannabusiness Blog, I’m going local and examining where legalization efforts stand in my own backyard.
It's Decriminalized (Sort of):
The first thing to know about marijuana in the Old North State is that, unlike many of its Dixie neighbors, marijuana has been decriminalized. The penalty for possession of up to half an ounce of cannabis is more akin to a parking violation, with no possibility of jail time and a $200 fine. Don’t let this lull you into complacency, however, as possession of greater amounts still carries hefty fines and sentences, with such larger amounts often carrying the presumption of an intent to sell or distribute as well, which can land you a one way ticket to Upstate University for months, if not years.
Medical Marijuana advocates in North Carolina have not been resting on their laurels, either. House Bill 78, though recently killed by the N.C. House Judiciary Committee in March of this year, marks the latest step in incremental progress toward an end to marijuana prohibition. The bill had broad support from medical marijuana users, including many military veterans, and a group called Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition.
However, the bill faced steep opposition in a notoriously conservative legislature. The N.C. Values Coalition and the Christian Action League, two conservative lobbying groups, spoke out against the bill back in March, calling it a “slippery slope” that could pave the way to full legalization.
Supporters of medical marijuana have not given up the ghost just yet. There is another proposal currently before the House Judiciary Committee, House Bill 317, which would legalize marijuana for terminally ill patients in hospice care.
Rope, Not Dope:
But this is not the end of the story. Out of the ashes of this most recent attempt at marijuana legalization arose an unlikely win for an ally of the legalization movement: legal hemp
Despite the fact that you would have to literally smoke a joint the size of a telephone pole to get high off of hemp, it was illegal in North Carolina due to its association with marijuana. That all changed on November 1, 2015, when Senate Bill 313 was signed into law, paving the way for a pilot program for legal hemp in North Carolina. Less than 50 acres likely will be planted in the first year, growing to about 1,200 acres in the second year. landowners will be allowed to produce and harvest cannabis sativa with less than 0.3% THC.
To be part of the pilot program, hemp farmers would be required to obtain a license from the newly created N.C. Industrial Hemp Commission. North Carolina is also home to one of the country’s only decortication plants, a facility that processes hemp to sell to textile manufacturers and other users.. Owned by Hemp, Inc., the multimillion-dollar plant is set to start production within months at a cavernous warehouse outside the tiny Nash County town of Spring Hope.
Hemp is a source of very strong natural fiber and highly nutritional seeds. Hemp is useful for creating 25,000 products, including fabrics, paper, car parts, as well as an oil extract that can be used to treat epilepsy. A recently passed law allows for the distribution of hemp oil to terminally ill patients in the state.
Of course, even something as benign as the legalization of hemp will attract detractors. The aforementioned Christian Action League took a strong stance against hemp legalization, once again dusting off slippery slope arguments in favor of maintaining Prohibition. This time, however, they were unsuccessful, and hemp will be the newest cash crop for North Carolina in 2016, which would help offset recent losses as tobacco sales have declined for state farmers over the last few years.
Waiting to Exhale:
While marijuana has not been decriminalized in South Carolina, the penalties for possession are similar, at least for first offenders. Possession of under an ounce carries a penalty of $200, with the possibility of up to 30 days of jail time. Repeat offenders face much steeper penalties than their northern neighbor, with the maximum fine of $2000 and a year in prison.
There have been legalization stirrings in the Palmetto State as well. Committees in both the South Carolina House and Senate were considering the South Carolina Medical Marijuana Program Act (H 4037/S 672), a bill that would make medical pot legal in the state when the S.C. Legislature adjourned in July of this year.
Sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats, the South Carolina Medical Marijuana Program Act would allow patients suffering from a listed condition to use and safely access medical marijuana if recommended by their doctors.
In September, the Senate Medical Affairs subcommittee voted unanimously to advance the Senate version of the bill. Approving the proposal sends a strong signal that legalizing medical marijuana is something the S.C. General Assembly is going to act on, said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, the bill’s main sponsor. Co-sponsor Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said, “It should not be illegal in South Carolina for a doctor to prescribe medicine to a patient that’s going to help that patient.”
The proposal would allow medical marijuana to be used to treat a variety of conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, AIDS and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Cannabidiol oil, an oil derived from marijuana, was legalized in South Carolina last year for treatment of certain forms of epilepsy.
The system proposed by the State would be akin to the seed-to-sale tracking program that CBB examined in a previous entry.
Next legislative session, the Senate version of the bill will head to the full Senate Medical Affairs Committee. If the proposal passes there, it will go to the full Senate for a vote. To become law, the proposal would have to pass the Senate and, then, the S.C. House.
Butt Out Fed's, Say S.C. Voters:
In keeping with the State’s small government, states' rights mentality, 65% of South Carolinians polled on the issue of the pending medical marijuana legislation responded that their state laws should govern their rights and access to medical marijuana, with only 19% of respondents saying that federal law should dictate access. This stance was consistent across party affiliation, age, and gender. The survey of 1,115 likely South Carolina voters was taken Sept. 3-6 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
Finally, a Palmetto Politics Poll conducted last July found 53% support for medical marijuana legalization.
What's Taking So Long?:
Despite inklings and imtimations of progress to repeal cannabis prohibition, there are a few things that are gumming up the works in the Carolinas. First, unlike states like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, there is no ballot initiative process in either North or South Carolina. This means that citizens of those states cannot propose laws directly by obtaining the required number of signatures. The majority of states that have passed legalization measures have done so through a ballot initiative.
As a result, any medical or recreational legalization initiative is going to need to go through the state legislatures. This is always going to be a slower, more painstaking process. Any proposed bill is going to have to be sponsored by a member of the legislature, and then wind its way through a Byzantine series of committee and subcommittee hearings before being voted on by the larger legislative body.
Which brings us to the second reason why the Carolinas are still mired in Prohibition. The legislatures that we depend on to pass legalization measures in both North Carolina and South Carolina are notoriously conservative. Some of the most conservative in the nation, in fact. Partisan bickering aside, this practically means that neither of these legislatures are particularly interested in being seen as beacons of progress for, what is, admittedly, unmapped territory.
Nevertheless, it is this author’s position (and hope) that, once Colorado et al. are able to demonstrate that they can navigate and manage a legal cannabis system without the sky falling or catching fire with brimstone, the rest of the states, including the Carolinas, will see that, not only is there nothing to be afraid of, but there is an incredible opportunity to be a part of the 21st century Green Rush.
This is particularly true in the South. Mark my words, there is going to be a Southern state or city that re-brands itself as the Amsterdam of the South, and it will be an absolute boon to the surrounding areas both culturally and economically. Will it be Durham? Charlotte? Asheville? Columbia? Greenville? Charleston? Smart and industrious minds are already laying the foundations for this in each of these areas, so it is simply a matter of getting the legislatures to catch up to the rest of us.