Legalized medical marijuana in North Carolina has long seemed a distant possibility. That possibility appears to be getting closer at the NC state legislature. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File) Medical Marijuana
Legalized medical marijuana in North Carolina has long seemed a distant possibility. That possibility appears to be getting closer at the NC state legislature. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

With national figures pushing President Biden to decriminalize marijuana, about 68% of North Carolina voters support legalizing cannabis, polling shows.

Most North Carolinians want legal weed and so do seven in 10 Americans. It’s about as popular an idea as exists in modern politics, with majorities of virtually every demographic supporting legalization. 

Now, with one high-profile U.S. Senate candidate pushing President Joe Biden to decriminalize marijuana, the country could be headed toward a major first step in legalization. 

“It’s long past time that we finally decriminalize marijuana,” Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the state’s Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, said recently. “The President needs to use his executive authority to begin descheduling marijuana.”

Fetterman’s comments come as several other Democrats have also pushed Biden to decriminalize marijuana in recent months.

Marijuana is fully legal in 19 states and Washington D.C., and legal for medicinal use in 18 additional states. In North Carolina, cannabis remains illegal, even for medicinal use—though it has been mostly decriminalized. 

Decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana at the federal level is overwhelmingly popular with North Carolinians of all political affiliations, as 68% of voters in the state support legalizing cannabis, according to the polling firm Civiqs.

The Failed War on Drugs

Under a 1970 law, marijuana—which is exponentially safer than alcohol and has led to zero documented overdoses—is illegal on the national level and is categorized as a “Schedule I drug,” in the same grouping as heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. Under the federal government’s drug policy, cannabis is considered more dangerous than cocaine and methamphetamine, which were linked to the deaths of more than 57,000 Americans last year alone.

The federal government’s criminalization of cannabis as part of the failed “War on Drugs” has disproportionately devastated Black people, who are incarcerated for drug crimes at a rate 10 times greater than white people, even though they use drugs at roughly the same rates. 

Rather than combat drug overdoses and save lives, the government’s war on drugs has instead devastated millions of American families while leading to a 500% increase in America’s prison population since 1970. There are now more than 2 million Americans in jail and prison–the highest rate of incarceration in the world–and overdose rates have actually grown exponentially since 1970.

Biden, who had campaigned on a promise to decriminalize marijuana, has not yet taken significant action on the issue. In comments made last month, Biden said he plans to follow through on a pledge to release people who were imprisoned over non-violent federal marijuana offenses. 

He also added that he does not believe Americans should be locked up for using cannabis and that he was working on a “crime bill,” though it’s unclear what legislation he was referring to.

House Democrats passed a bill earlier this year to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and expunge cannabis-related criminal records. Only three House Republicans voted for the bill, which has not yet received a vote in the Senate, where it is likely to be blocked by Senate Republicans.

So Where Do North Carolina Leaders Stand? 

Barring any federal action on marijuana, supporters of legalization will have to be patient in North Carolina.

North Carolina’s state legislature, which has been dominated by Republicans for more than a decade, has been slow to embrace legalization, although in recent years limited proposals for medicinal marijuana have gained some traction.

That’s due to the backing of influential state Senate Republicans like Sen. Bill Rabon from eastern North Carolina. Supporters point to marijuana’s benefits for people suffering from various medical ailments. 

The state Senate passed a medical marijuana bill in June that would have cleared the drug for use with patients suffering from a shortlist of illnesses, including cancer, epilepsy, Crohn’s Disease, Parkinson’s and post-traumatic stress disorder, but state House Republicans blocked it from passage.

State Democrats are likely to support broader legalization and decriminalization measures in the legislature. Indeed, in 2020, a racial justice task force led by Attorney General Josh Stein and N.C. Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls recommended decriminalization in their report to Gov. Roy Cooper.