Local lawmakers offer mixed marijuana views

Tom Joyce

January 22, 2014

With legalized marijuana in Colorado seemingly sparking similar action elsewhere, the two state legislators who represent Surry County say North Carolina pot supporters shouldn’t hold their breath.

While one of those legislators strongly believes the state’s present political climate won’t support such a move, the other thinks the legalization issue should be fully explored due to benefits linked to medical marijuana and hemp by-products, based on recent interviews.

“I mean, I’ve been contacted by cancer patients who believe that we need to legalize marijuana,” said state Sen. Shirley Randleman, who added that such appeals from terminally ill persons are hard to ignore. Most of the people who have lobbied her for legislative action are those backing its medical use, she said.

“And I’ve had a lot of information presented to me on the positive aspects (of the drug),” Surry’s Senate representative acknowledged. She further cited attempts to decrease penalties for misdemeanor marijuana offenses.

In addition, Randleman referred to an agricultural committee presentation regarding hemp during the 2013 General Assembly session focusing on the use of marijuana by-products to manufacture a wood-like material.

Randleman said she even took a piece of that substance back home from Raleigh. “It amazes me that you can make something like that out of that by-product,” said the senator who lives in Wilkes County.

“So in North Carolina, it needs to be debated,” Randleman said in outlining her position on pro-marijuana legislation. “But we need to proceed very cautiously and do what is in the best interest of the citizens and the state of North Carolina.”

Meanwhile, state Rep. Sarah Stevens — a Republican, as is Randleman — was less receptive to the idea of legalization, including medical applications of marijuana.

“It’s not the right time,” Stevens said of pot law changes in North Carolina.

One aspect that Stevens, a Mount Airy attorney, illuminated involves the comparison of marijuana to alcohol, a legal product that is thought to be much more harmful. “That’s the argument they use,” the local legislator said of weed advocates.

Legal sales of alcoholic beverages have been accompanied by certain problems such as disease and impairment dangers, and the same might be true if marijuana laws in North Carolina were softened, Stevens says. Just as consuming alcohol can impair one’s ability to drive, that and other concerns also are associated with marijuana.

The drug might have medical and other benefits. “But what about all the other problems it’s going to bring?” Stevens said.

Money Motivator?

Marijuana discussions have been prevalent around the nation since Colorado launched sales of recreational marijuana on Jan. 1. With cash-strapped states struggling to fund their programs, much of the attention has surrounded the money to be realized from the marijuana industry.

Various news reports indicate that sales exceeded $5 million in the first week in Colorado, and that the state is expecting to receive $70 million in tax revenues for the year.

However, North Carolina is nowhere close to considering the merits of marijuana on those grounds, based on the recent comments from the Surry legislative delegation, which included no mention of the budgetary implications.

“The bills that have been filed, which have not been taken up, are always about medical marijuana,” Randleman said.

Someone has introduced medical-marijuana legislation “just about every year” in the General Assembly, Stevens said, and that is all but guaranteed to be the case again this year.

“But I don’t think it will gain any traction,” Stevens said, despite the momentum from Colorado and states that have approved its medical use, which number 20 altogether. Others are now considering such laws.

Stevens, herself a cancer survivor, has given a hard look to previous marijuana legislation proposed in the N.C. General Assembly.

“I was interested in it from strictly a medical perspective when I first looked into it,” the local lawmaker said.

Yet the more Stevens explored the medical marijuana issue the less receptive she was, including a provision that would allow users 300 marijuana cigarettes per month, which Stevens viewed as excessive.

“I said, ‘no, we don’t need that.’”

No Time Soon

Even if there is a push to radically alter marijuana laws in North Carolina, nothing along those lines could be approved this year under state legislative rules, Randleman pointed out.

Although Stevens, Randleman and other representatives and senators will convene in Raleigh for a short session on May 14, their lawmaking actions will be limited.

Randleman said only bills that have “crossed over” both chambers of the General Assembly can be voted on this year.

“We kind of pick up where we left off (last summer),” she said of the upcoming session. Since it will be short, the session doesn’t allow introduction and debate on new legislation as is the case with longer sessions that accommodate those lengthy procedures.

“Any bills sitting out there that didn’t cross over, they’d just have to be re-filed next January,” Randleman said.

Meanwhile, in a recent statement, a congressman from North Carolina, Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., encouraged state officials to work with medical professionals and scientists “to determine the efficacy of the use of medical marijuana in certain instances.”

However, the representative and senator who serve Surry County think North Carolina won’t be rushing head-long into any kind of marijuana approvals despite what’s occurring out west.

“I think we’ll be very, very cautious,” Stevens pledged.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.