On April 20, or “4/20,” which in the world of marijuana smokers is like a national holiday, prominent N.C. Democrats celebrated the day themselves by calling for the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana and for clemency for those currently in prison for marijuana charges. The term “4/20” was popularized by the Grateful Dead as a time some of their fans would smoke together after school.

This week, Cheri Beasley, former state Supreme Court chief justice and likely Democratic nominee for North Carolina’s 2022 U.S. Senate race, said on social media, “Legalizing marijuana in North Carolina would: Help small, NC farms thrive, Strengthen our local economy, Reform our criminal justice system. Legalization just makes sense — and as Senator, I’ll work to get it done.”

Attorney General Josh Stein, another top Democrat, said, “It’s time for NC to move forward on medical cannabis, decriminalization of simple possession, and expungement of criminal records. Let’s act but let’s get it right – including strong protections for kids, no advertising, state controlled sales, and putting NC farmers first.”

The most controversial part of Stein’s statement, judging by the comments under it, was not about legalization but about the “state controlled sales,” with many saying an ABC-type system like the one that exists for liquor in North Carolina would be too restrictive. 

Nationally, 68% of Americans support legalization, according to a late 2021 Gallup poll. Republicans were about evenly split, though, with 50% for and 49% against making marijuana legal. In North Carolina, a WRAL/SurveyUSA poll found that 57% of adults in the state wanted recreational marijuana legalized and 72% wanted medical marijuana legalized. 

This shift in opinion in recent years has resulted in 19 states legalizing recreational marijuana, including New Jersey starting on April 21. A bill passed in the U.S. House and under consideration in the Senate would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and allow states to decide how to regulate it.

While there’s no clear sign the Republican-majority legislature plans to act on such a bill for North Carolina when it comes back after the May 17 primaries, there will be one place marijuana will soon be available in the state — the far-western tribal territory, known as the Qualla Boundary, of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. 

The EBCI tribal council voted 11-1 in May 2021 to allow medical marijuana within the Qualla Boundary and to decriminalize possession of marijuana, even for recreational use, up to an ounce. Those who are not tribal members will be permitted to obtain a medical marijuana card using the same process as tribal members, but they are asked not to take their “prescriptions” off of EBCI territory since it is still illegal in the rest of North Carolina.   

With calls for legalization increasing, John Locke Foundation CEO Amy Cooke advises caution. “I had a front-row seat to marijuana legalization in Colorado,” Cooke said. “Legalization at the state level requires serious debate and solutions to real problems, like lack of access to financial services and the need for additional law enforcement and extensive physical security ahead of time.”

The physical security, Cooke says, is necessary for dispensaries and growing operations that cannot use banks because their business remains illegal at the federal level. This makes their all-cash business vulnerable to having profits stolen by criminal elements.  

“Know that until marijuana is legal at the federal level, it will continue to be a high-risk business,” Cooke said. “Starting at the federal level makes more sense and would be a much smoother path.”

She also said it can affect the culture, with marijuana use in parks and on the streets becoming a nuisance to other citizens, like families and business owners.

“For instance, despite being against the law, people openly smoke pot in public areas where families congregate because laws aren’t enforced. Pretty soon families stop going to those places. If North Carolinians want to legalize pot, just do so with your eyes wide open.”