John Boyle’s Opinion: For Crying Out Loud, North Carolina, Legalize Weed and Use the Revenues for Good

A window with an LED sign showing that a weed dispensary is open.
Starr Sariego, Asheville Watchdog

Written by John Boyle, Asheville Watchdog.

Pamela Kimmell has an idea that is just so crazy, so out there whackadoodly-do — I’m talking Martians-tripping-on acid at a Grateful Dead show weird — that it’s just going to blow the top of your head clean off.

“I’m serious that mental health and addiction services should have to be funded from the legalization of cannabis,” Kimmell told me over tacos in West Asheville on a recent Tuesday.

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See what I’m talking about, people?! Talking about legalizing the Devil’s lettuce and then using the proceeds to do something sorely needed in the Tar Heel state? My mind is in splinters.

Perhaps I exaggerate. That’s because Kimmell, 73, makes perfectly good sense, even though the chance of legalizing marijuana in this state this year, or perhaps in the next 20, is about as good as the Pit of Despair downtown being turned into, well, anything useful.

State Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Buncombe, summed it up nicely for me.

“Not a chance of legalization for recreational use,” she said via text last week. “I think not even of medical marijuana this year.”

State Rep. Linsay Prather, D-Buncombe, co-sponsored a bill last year to legalize recreational cannabis, with tax proceeds going to benefit a plethora of good causes. She, too, is clear-eyed about its chances.

“There are a hundred reasons why legalizing cannabis would be a good idea,” Prather told me, rattling off good programs that could come from it. “It has zero chance in the legislature. Absolutely zero chance, right now, with the makeup that we have.”

She cited Republican leaders, including state Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Warsaw, who chairs the Agriculture Committee, for their opposition to legalization. It’s a tough bunch to sway.

Poll: Most North Carolinians favor legalization

This comes despite most North Carolinians favoring some form of legalization.

Meredith College published a poll in February that showed overwhelming support for medical marijuana. A news release about the poll noted that last year the state Senate passed the North Carolina Compassionate Care Act, “which would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for a number of physical and mental conditions.”

The House didn’t vote on it, but there was hope it might come up in this year’s session, although that looks like it’s not going to happen, as Mayfield said.

“A large majority of North Carolinians (78%) support the passage of this type of bill with only 18 percent of our respondents being opposed,” Meredith Poll Director David McLennan said in the release.

McLennan also noted, “North Carolina is one of only 12 states without some form of legal medical marijuana. With the public strongly behind such a law and most within the medical community supporting this legislation, it seems like this might be a good time to pass such a bill.”

We’re just stupidly stubborn about this here, much like we were with enacting lottery legislation that finally made it legal in 2006 for North Carolinians to buy tickets here instead of driving to South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and every other state that wanted a slice of the enormous revenue pie that I call the “stupid tax.” Hey, I play the lottery on occasion — won 10 bucks last week on a scratch-off! — but let’s be honest: you’ve got to be stupid to play it and think you’re going to come out ahead.

Or how we waited a decade to expand Medicaid because the Affordable Care Act was enacted under a president, Barack Obama, that conservatives didn’t like.

If you don’t like vices that can inflict financial damage and familial misery, you have to laugh at North Carolina so giddily allowing sports betting this year. I can’t imagine how much money, or homes, people are losing on that.

Prather noted that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of the mental health profession, lists gambling on the same level as heroin when it comes to addictiveness.

So go lay down those bets, North Carolinians! But legalize weed? Hell no, you commie hippie!

Honestly, it’s just bizarre at this point.

As Smoky Mountain News pointed out in an excellent article in April about the chances of weed legalization here, writer Cory Vaillancourt cited figures that should make every North Carolinian perk up.

“The states where recreational cannabis products are legal have seen revenues associated with its taxation grow to hundreds of millions of dollars each year,” Vaillancourt wrote. “Financial advice website Motley Fool said in November 2023 that were North Carolina to adopt an average cannabis taxation structure, it would see revenues of more than $182 million a year within three years of establishment.”

I suspect that’s on the low end. I mean, have you walked through downtown Asheville recently and taken in the wafting aroma of the dude in front of you burning down in public?

Plus, I suspect we could benefit on both ends of this equation, with farmers taking advantage of our mountain soil that was ideal for growing burley tobacco to grow weed – yes, I know this is already happening – and processors processing it and distributing it to retail shops. Down east was a center of flue-cured tobacco, and I suspect they could grow a few marijuana plants, too.

We’re missing out, and it’s just dumb at this point. I know we have a lot of CBD shops, and some of that stuff is engineered to get you quite high, as my colleague John Reinan reported last month.

But a well-regulated and taxed legal marijuana industry could be a huge boon to the state. Yes, it comes with a need for regulations and safety, as some of this stuff is incredibly strong, but we’ve managed to regulate alcohol — and profit from it handsomely — since Prohibition ended in 1933.

Still, I suspect local attorney Ben Scales might be right when he told Reinan, “I like to say, we’ll be the 52nd state (to legalize marijuana).”

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, technically a sovereign nation, has legalized weed, but that seems to have had no effect on our state legislators.

Prather also is not optimistic about North Carolina suddenly seeing the light.

“I’ve been saying for years that I think the country will go legal before North Carolina does,” Prather said. “I really do.”

The federal government has recently moved toward reclassifying marijuana as a less dangerous drug, so maybe that will come to pass.

1.5 million people in North Carolina have a mental illness

The wasted opportunity is a shame, because Kimmell has a good idea when she talks about using marijuana revenues to provide better mental health care in North Carolina.

As I reported in our Down Town series last year, “One in five adults in North Carolina have a mental illness — some 1.5 million people — and more than half of those are not receiving treatment, according to the report, ‘2022: The State of Mental Health in America,’ by the nonprofit Mental Health America.”

Regarding Kimmell’s idea, Prather said, “The mental health piece, I love that idea from her. We absolutely need to increase our funding and support for mental health services, particularly for young people.”

Prather concedes that weed is not harmless, and we would need serious guardrails in place, especially for youth, but she also knows that “there are science-based reasons to legalize it” and “medical benefits to THC when it comes to certain conditions.” Not even discussing it on the floor of the legislature is “extraordinarily frustrating” to her because it’s such a lost opportunity.

“I think it’s a lot easier to have those fact-based, science-based discussions about it and learn about it” out in the open “if we’re not all scared to talk about it,” Prather said.

We talked about alcohol and the problems it causes, which include plenty of car accidents and family strife.

“Honestly, going through this entire process makes me wonder if alcohol was up for a vote today, would North Carolina legalize it?” Prather said. “I don’t know.”

I kind of doubt it. She did, too.

‘It’s harder for people with mental illness to fight for themselves’

Kimmell taught English overseas, including in Mexico, Jamaica, and in the West Bank. In the late 1970s she wrote curricula for high school programs for drug and alcohol education.

Originally from Massachusetts, Kimmell also published a magazine geared toward lesbians for 15 years and did counseling for the LGBTQ community. Here in Asheville, Kimmell worked as an office manager for a veterans and senior care facility.

She lives in West Asheville and continues to do odd jobs and assist older people who need help. But as someone who’s struggled with clinical depression, Kimmell says she also needs help.

Kimmell says she tried to get Lexapro, an antidepressant, at no cost but ran into numerous hurdles and essentially a system in which no one is in charge of helping indigent people get what they need.

“It took me seven months to get a one-month free supply of Lexapro,” Kimmell said. “I could not get the Lexapro continued.”’

Kimmell half-joked that she’s got a better chance of getting it than a lot of people because “there are services for old and crazy people.”

Ironically, Kimmell was able to get a free prescription for a popular weight loss drug because she needs to lose a certain amount of weight before she can get a hip replacement.

When it comes to mental health, though, Kimmell said it seems nothing is easy. And she points out another troubling truth about those struggling with mental health issues.

“It’s harder for people with mental illness to fight for themselves,” she said.

North Carolina, like a lot of other states, has a huge shortage of beds and care in general, all going back to the push a few decades ago to “reform” mental health care institutions and privatize much of the industry.

“This state could use 10 times the amount of addiction centers,” Kimmell said.

Kimmell is open about her own mental health.

“I’ve been as low as suicidal and as high as happy-go-lucky,” she said.

She talked about a recent trip she made to Boston, where weed is legal. A shop she went into was neat and clean, with concierge-type service.

It made her think of the possibilities North Carolina is missing out on. Going without care is not a healthy option, she says, noting that group therapy sessions she found very helpful were discontinued.

“I want my services. I want my group therapy. I want my meds,” Kimmell said. “I want everybody with mental illness to stop suffering because of the government. It’s bad enough I have to suffer because of my brain — it’s worse that it happens at the hands of the government.”

North Carolinians surely would fight about where the money from weed sales and production would go, and we would need to be careful about allowing the strongest types of weed to be sold, while seriously protecting minors. But alcohol causes way more societal woes, accidents, and deaths than marijuana ever has or will.

So here we are, stuck again. I think I’ll go buy a lottery ticket with a one-in-7-gazillion chance of winning, bet money I don’t have on an NBA playoff game and then check the stats on how many North Carolinians died during the decade state legislators dawdled instead of expanding Medicaid.

It’s the Carolina way. You can bet on that.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at [email protected]. The Watchdog’s reporting is made possible by donations from the community. To show your support for this vital public service please visit avlwatchdog.org/donate.