Recently, Dr. Christian Thurstone, a Colorado psychiatrist, implored North Carolinians to heed his warning about medical marijuana, suggesting that legalizing medical marijuana in our state would be a net negative. Dr. Thurstone offered reasonable critiques of medical marijuana—ease of access, the potential for being over-prescribed, and higher potency. However, while all of these are valid, he neglected to highlight many of the positive aspects that are associated with medical marijuana, such as the moral, health, and economic benefits. Good public policymaking is about assessing trade-offs and making an informed decision based on the available information. I want to offer another perspective on the medical marijuana legalization debate.

The crux of the medical marijuana debate rests on the morality of its usage. Morality can be tricky, primarily because it can be subjective. That being said, if there is one universal, objective moral tenet that we could all agree upon, I believe it to be this: to reduce unnecessary pain and suffering.

Marijuana’s ability to tackle a wide array of issues that bring about pain and suffering is noteworthy. About medical marijuana, the American Cancer Society has said, “Marijuana can treat patients suffering from pain in ways that traditional medicine fails at doing.” The various ailments that medical marijuana can address include, but are not limited to, nausea, anorexia, neuropathic pain, and HIV wasting syndrome.

And that’s just marijuana with higher levels of the psychoactive compound THC; other types of marijuana are also available. For example, marijuana that is low in THC and high in a different compound known as CBD can treat seizures, reduce anxiety, and ease joint pain, among other conditions. Additionally, pharmaceuticals that harness the active chemicals of marijuana, such as Sativex and Marinol, and marijuana in edible format are healthier options for consumption than marijuana in its smokeable form, thus not putting already-sick people at greater risk.

We ought to be ready and willing to help people access natural, medically proven means to reduce chronic pain. Medical marijuana is far from a cure-all, but it would definitely be a step in the right direction. However, it doesn’t end there. There are economic and agricultural considerations as well.

North Carolina has a long, storied history of being an agricultural state, specifically as it relates to tobacco. However, due to a massive government PR campaign against “Big Tobacco,” tobacco farming has declined for more than two decades. A 2019 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the amount of acreage dedicated to tobacco in North Carolina went from almost 318,000 acres in 1997 to nearly 168,000 acres in 2017. What’s more, during the same period, the number of tobacco manufacturing jobs went from a little more than 12,000 employees down to just 4,605.

Tobacco auction in Durham, North Carolina (Library of Congress).

Marijuana planted for medical purposes would aptly fill this void. Farmland would be put to better use, and thousands of jobs would become available, which would help rural areas that are still reeling since before the start of the pandemic. It would help North Carolina unemployment move back to pre-COVID levels. For example, Florida, which allows for only medical marijuana, added more than 9,000 marijuana-related full-time jobs in 2018. With more people in the workforce comes a stronger, more stimulated economy.

But the biggest game changer is not the jobs that would be created. It is the price that marijuana could fetch on the market. Undoubtedly, the acres once filled with tobacco have not simply lied dormant. Instead, farmers switched almost exclusively to planting corn and soybeans. The problem is that marijuana commands an astronomically higher price per acre than corn or soybeans. According to the Rand Corporation, an acre of marijuana can yield roughly $1.1 million (depending on harvest and quality), while corn and soybeans yield about $644 and $402, respectively.

It is evident that medical marijuana would be a boon for jobs, farming, and the economy and would be a great way to diversify our already thriving agricultural sector here in North Carolina.

Ultimately, life is full of trade-offs, and simply because something has some downsides doesn’t automatically make it wrong or not worthwhile. This is the case for medical marijuana. While critics of medical marijuana offer valid criticisms, I believe that the benefits we reap from moving forward with medical marijuana far outweigh the negatives. 

Michael Bruce is an intern at the John Locke Foundation.