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N.C.'s Antiquated Marijuana Laws Are Losing the State Millions to the 'Green Rush' 

Go west, young weed entrepreneur

I stood in the front yard of an east Charlotte home on a sunny spring day, surrounded by all of Nancy's worldly possessions. I sorted through relics from various local businesses she helped launch and became especially sad when I came upon her prized collection of china from a popular dinner club she pioneered.

The impending loss of one of our city's greatest millennial influencers was hard to swallow. Nancy was selling everything to move across the country and join the "Green Rush" — the booming marijuana economy in western states that have legalized the plant for both medical and recreational purposes.

Just one year after the first joint of legal recreational marijuana was sold in Nancy's soon-to-be home state of Colorado, the state population had grown by 100,000 people. This growth vigorously outpaced pre-legalization projections and will likely lead to an extra congressional seat for Colorado after the 2020 census.

It's easy to see what makes migration so attractive. The most recent analysis from the Marijuana Policy Group showed legal marijuana created 18,005 full-time jobs in Colorado in 2015 and added about $2.4 billion to the state's economy. Demand for legal marijuana is currently projected to grow by 11.3 percent per year through 2020, and create revenues topping the GDP of small countries like Serbia and Panama. It's hard to tell whether the term "Green Rush" refers to the color of pot plants or cash.

Unlike some, Nancy's not moving for the money: "I've signed on with a grassroots CBD (hemp oil) company that is changing the way we look at lifelong prevention and treatment of an exhaustive number of diseases and conditions. I'm moving because I'll be able to legally work with cannabis and its components to help ease people's suffering. North Carolina would view me as a criminal."

Nancy, 35, sold weed illegally in NC for nearly 20 years. She sold exclusively to patients with medical needs. I profiled her in my April 2015 Creative Loafing article, "Dealer Drama."

"Leaving North Carolina was an incredibly tough decision," Nancy says. "I've been consistently involved in the community through arts and nonprofit work. I was an early part of the craft beer boom and helped build the scene. I've opened a ton of restaurants. I've put my heart and soul into so many interesting projects. It's difficult to leave it all behind."

Nancy says she tried to create change here: "I marched beside my neighbors in protest, donated time and resources, stood up for equality ... I really thought that with hard work, creativity and pure intentions we could bring about a movement. Instead we were met with 'No' by our elected officials, with no offering of a logical reasoning behind it. Just some outdated ideas and traditions."

Nancy is not the only one to relocate to a more politically hospitable environment. Shane, 33, moved from Charlotte to Oregon last February to take a job with a marijuana manufacturer in Portland.

"I was not looking to leave Charlotte. I was born and raised there," he says. "I moved here intending to experience some economic gains, and I have, but it would be nice to do that in my home state. I miss all my people in Charlotte."

Shane says in his new position, he'll be involved in all aspects of marijuana production "from soil to oil," with a heavy focus on sales and marketing. He excelled in his sales and marketing career here in Charlotte, but it was less lucrative. He's a founding member of an artist collective responsible for a series of successful cultural events, concert series with national sponsorships, and a popular clothing and accessories line.

Like Nancy, he was a highly recognizable figure in the NoDa and Plaza Midwood communities, and the loss of his talent and contribution will be felt.

"North Carolina is losing a lot by not being more forward-thinking on marijuana legislation — money, jobs, money, pesticide-free plants, money, one less reason to arrest innocent people, money, less stress...oh and money," Shane jokes.

  • Illustration by Dana Vindigni.

The potential revenue not being capitalized on is no laughing matter. The financial advisory website Nerdwallet analyzed population and marijuana user data in all 50 states to determine the potential earnings each one could make from legalizing weed. It estimated North Carolina would control slightly less than 3 percent of the total U.S. marijuana market, equaling about $365 million. Combining state and local sales taxes (6.9 percent) and the 15 percent excise tax that Colorado puts on the sale of marijuana, total annual tax revenues from North Carolina legalization were estimated to be slightly over $80 million.

That's enough cash to relieve ongoing shortages of crucial state services. Enough to hire about 1,800 new teachers, add 25,000 students to the Pre-K program, or add 421 new beds to state mental health facilities.

Two identical bills have been filed in the North Carolina General Assembly this session (HB 185 and SB 648) for the legalization of medical marijuana. They estimate even higher revenues for the state: $250 million by year four of implementation. The bills' language states that figure is based on other places where medical marijuana has been legalized and regulated.

Both these revenue numbers are an aside from the number of jobs that could be created. According to a study by RCG Economics and Marijuana Policy Group, Nevada — a state that just legalized recreational pot and is projected to own less of the U.S. market share than our state would (1.12 percent) — will now be able to support over 41,000 jobs until 2024 and generate over $1.7 billion in labor income. Perhaps those North Carolinians who voted for Trump to bring their manufacturing jobs back should consider barking up another tree ... or plant.

Legal weed jobs aren't unheard of in North Carolina. The Research Triangle Institute in Research Triangle Park has been involved in a marijuana research project through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since 1978. You'd think after 40 years, lawmakers and their constituents would be ready to expand industry jobs to less-affluent parts of the state.

It's hard to tell what voters are ready for. A December 2015 poll from the conservative Civitas Institute indicates 53 percent of North Carolinians "totally oppose" marijuana legalization, but a poll by data research firm Resonate taken just four months later showed only 23 percent of voters opposed legalization, with 40 percent supporting it and the remaining 37 percent saying they were persuadable.

Judah, 39, moved from Greensboro to a Northern California pot farm in 2012. "I wanted to make a living without having to look over my shoulder. The first year was tough, but now I can't imagine living anywhere else. My capacity to make money tripled after my first year here, but the marijuana market definitely fluctuates. There have been some rough patches here and there."

Not everyone who moves west is able to recover from the rough patches Judah speaks of. Some in Colorado blame an 8 percent uptick in homelessness on legalization. Mass migration to the state has caused a steep rise in housing costs and the booming marijuana tourism industry has led to a surging occupancy rates. This has made even low-cost motels unaffordable, and they are often the last resort for people on the verge of homelessness.

In addition to housing issues, there's the lingering Federal issue: the federal government still prohibits the sale of marijuana and the DEA considers it a Schedule 1 drug on the level of much more dangerous and addictive drugs like heroin.

During a press conference in February, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said states with legal marijuana should expect the Justice Department to enforce federal policy. That's a reversal from the Obama administration's official memo which stated the federal government wouldn't interfere in states where weed is legal.

The uncertainty of what this new administration will bring is the reason my sources in this article asked me not to use their real names, despite the fact everything they're doing is legal in their states.

If HB 185 and SB 648 pass through the NC General Assembly, legalization of medical marijuana in our state will be left up to North Carolina voters. That's unlikely to happen, though, according to Rep. John Autry, a co-sponsor of the House bill: "With H.B. 185 having been referred to the Rules Committee, it's likely we've seen the last of it. Bills are referred to the Rules Committee when leadership doesn't like the bill, the policy, or even the legislator championing the legislation."

There's been a medical marijuana legalization bill filed nearly every session for the past five years, and every session it dies in a committee. Autry said "what will make a difference is a different majority party."

Perhaps our state's conservative leadership won't leave this decision up to voters until every forward-thinking entrepreneur has left North Carolina for a job somewhere else. And perhaps that was their plan all along.

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