North Carolina should learn from others and do marijuana right

Published March 23, 2023

By Rob Schofield

Cannabis – aka marijuana. Most Americans already live in a state where it’s lawful to sell, obtain and possess – either for medical purposes, recreational purposes or both – and the genie is clearly not going back in the bottle.

What’s more, if a bipartisan group of North Carolina lawmakers gets their way in the current legislative session, North Carolina will soon become the 38th state to embrace such a statutory environment. Senate Bill 3 – the “Compassionate Care Act” – would make marijuana a lawful treatment in this state for several specified medical conditions.

And this makes obvious sense. The notion that any adult in 2023 is being cited or arrested – much less fined, imprisoned or getting a criminal record – for personal use or possession of marijuana is absurd. Legalizing marijuana for medical purposes is an obvious first step to preventing such injustices.

That said, there are numerous choices that state leaders need to make as they head down the road of ending prohibition, and a lot of them revolve around money and control – who will make it and who will have it.

Fortunately, one of the nation’s more knowledgeable experts in this realm is a veteran Chapel Hill attorney named Patrick Oglesby, and as Oglesby has written at some length, and expanded upon in a recent NC Policy Watch interview, there are some important lessons to be learned from other jurisdictions around North America.

Oglesby’s chief piece of advice: Don’t turn the control (and the profits from) marijuana production and sales over to giant, out-of-state corporations.

As he insightfully puts it, opening up legal marijuana sales for the first time is “like discovering gold on state land.” It’s an exercise that will create a huge and profitable market out of whole cloth — a market that will trade in a product with the potential to have a big impact on the health, wealth and well-being of the state’s citizens. As such, it’s something that ought to be handled so that it belongs to and benefits of the people of the state.

So rather than simply selecting and handing the whole thing over to a group of big, for-profit companies (at least some of which have distinctly sketchy connections) to own and extract huge returns, Oglesby urges keeping production and sales under public control.

Attorney Patrick Oglesby
Attorney Patrick Oglesby favors public control of marijuana production and sales.

To this end, he cites approvingly the actions of Louisiana officials who turned the production process over to a pair of the state’s land grant universities: Southern University (an HBCU) and Louisiana State University, which in turn, contracted the farming out to a pair of private growers. He notes that North Carolina A&T and NC State could be selected to replicate that model here.

This would keep the production truly local, while benefiting local growers and, ultimately, the universities.

As for sales, Oglesby urges lawmakers to consider the examples set by some Canadian provinces where sales are publicly controlled – much like the ABC system North Carolina employs to sell liquor.

Such a set-up would, he notes, help “spread the power around…where nobody controls the entire supply chain.”

He notes further that this would also represent an appropriately “cautious approach” to a challenge – widespread legal cannabis/marijuana availability and distribution – about which people are understandably and justifiably nervous.

As Oglesby notes, once medical marijuana is widely available, experience in other states shows that the likelihood of keeping recreational sales under wraps is very remote. And if that’s going to be the case, he says, it’s almost assuredly better to have such sales handled by the state than by huge, profit-seeking corporations.

Unfortunately, as it reads at this point, the Compassionate Care Act embraces what’s become the prevalent model of corporate control. The legislation would create a state commission that would then select 10 corporations to handle total “seed-to-sales” control of medical marijuana production and distribution.

And while the bill pays lip service to the idea of control by locals – it purports to impose a residency requirement on the businesses applying to be among the ten selected – Oglesby notes that: a) federal courts have already struck down such requirements as unconstitutional, and b) we can rest assured it won’t take long for the applicant companies to seek a similar ruling here (and for companies not selected to bring lots of additional lawsuits).

As he notes, the cannabis/marijuana industry is big and fast-growing and has a proven record of “rolling over” state governments that invite it into their states. Better, Oglesby says, to create your own publicly run system than to try to tangle with such a powerful financial tiger, or try to somehow keep it on a leash.

The bottom line: Ending marijuana prohibition is an idea that’s long overdue. State lawmakers are to be commended for moving in that direction.

But in so doing, North Carolina will create a huge new revenue generating entity – literally out of nothing. Lawmakers, therefore, would do well – at the very least, initially – to carefully manage and regulate it as a public good that belongs to the people of the state, rather than trusting the state’s well-being to a coterie of big companies for whom making money for shareholders is the only real moral obligation.