Michael Oakes headshot

Weed isn’t going away.

This leafy green plant has been popular in the US since the 17th century. Demand for rope, clothing and sails resulted in a thriving hemp industry for over two centuries. Eventually, imports met this demand, but tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, remained in over-the-counter medication well into the 19th century.

As you may already know, pot’s fall from grace came after the Mexican Revolution, when Mexican immigrants flooded into the southern U.S., bringing recreational cannabis use with them. Dubbed “the Marijuana Menace,” anti-drug campaigns did their best to associate cannabis with the distrusted immigrant population. By the 1920s, over half of the U.S. had banned its use.

In 2015, almost a century later, North Carolina lawmakers finally rescinded their prohibition on commercial hemp production. While the NC hemp sector is still relatively new and relies on farming subsidies to compete with cotton in the textile industry, new farms crop up every year.

Unfortunately, THC-rich cannabis hasn’t received such amnesty, despite a wealth of bills proposing its legalization.

Last summer, I attended an event hosted by the Wake Libertarian Party. During this well-attended seminar, NC House Democrat Alison Dahle answered questions regarding her recently proposed House Bill 617, which would provide sweeping legalization for adults at least 21 years of age to own and use marijuana in NC. It also included an outline for regulating a commercial cannabis market and criminal justice reform, including expunging criminal records for drug crimes made legal by the bill.

Attacking the so-called “war on drugs” is an uphill battle, and HB 617 didn’t make it far. Dahle’s fellow House members voiced concerns about the radical change, and distrust for cannabis runs deep in older generations.

There is certainly a public appetite for cannabis products. You wouldn’t have to drive far to find smoke shops proudly advertising a selection of prohibition-dodging delta-8 THC products. The THC alternative market, in which companies provide chemically similar compounds derived from THC-rich cannabis, is booming, prompting 18 states to issue restrictions or outright bans to maintain their hold on marijuana consumption.

Eighteen different states have legalized recreational marijuana and have benefited greatly from it. In 2020, Colorado reaped over $32 million in taxes just from state dispensaries, and another $387 million from recreational and retail cannabis vendors. Since legalizing marijuana in 2014, Washington has raked in a whopping $3 billion in marijuana sales and excise taxes. The financial incentive for legal weed is undeniable.

Growing that amount of marijuana wouldn’t be difficult for North Carolina’s farmers. The climate and soil conditions in NC are very much like those found in the Emerald Triangle, a region of California famous for being the largest cannabis-producer in the U.S. Existing subsidies afforded to hemp farmers could be expanded to include THC-rich cannabis producers, and the resulting harvests would be both bountiful and well-developed on account of NC’s rich soil. On the small scale, most legal states allow individuals to grow their own cannabis plants at home, just like any other potted plant. And why shouldn’t adults be allowed to grow their own weed?

It's a regressive and ultimately pointless endeavor to punish responsible adults for making decisions that affect only themselves. Smoking a joint on your back porch is no different from drinking at a bar, with all the enjoyment and responsibility that entails. It is already a crime to drive intoxicated, so criminalizing the consumption of THC is redundant at best and stubbornly malicious at worst.

Just under half of nonviolent drug crimes are marijuana related. If we are to progress as a society, we must stop wasting over $51 billion annually on drug-related law enforcement and start making changes where it really matters.

The U.S. has been fighting the war on drugs for over 50 years, but it seems drugs won in the end. We have the opportunity to repeal regressive policies and secure the freedom to make our own choices.

Now, where did I put that lighter…

Michael Oakes is a fourth-year studying mechanical engineering at NC State. He is also running for District 49 of the NC General Assembly and will appear on ballots in 2022.