ASHEVILLE – What some are calling a marijuana revolution taking root in other states will result in legalization of the much-debated weed in North Carolina, Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan believes.
“Sadly, yes, because of the money involved and the widespread public acceptance,” Duncan said. “I think legalization is probably going to continue to spread. Every time it happens in one state, it makes it harder for other states to enforce.”
Colorado and Washington already allow recreational sale and use of marijuana, boosting tax revenues, and two other states, Alaska and Oregon, are phasing in legalization this year.
Voters in Washington, D.C., also approved legalization, but Congress has blocked that measure.
Twenty-three other states, including North Carolina, have decriminalized marijuana in simple possession cases or for medical purposes.
In North Carolina, possession of a half-ounce or less is a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $200 and no jail time.
While marijuana remains illegal under federal law, federal officials have largely allowed states to move ahead with state-run programs allowing medical and recreational marijuana.
And of interest in Western North Carolina, the U.S. Justice Department last year gave American Indian tribes the authority to legalize marijuana on their reservations.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is still evaluating whether to move forward with legalization, Principal Chief Michell Hicks said.
According to a national Gallup poll conducted in October, 51 percent of Americans supported legalizing marijuana. A Gallup poll in 1969 showed such support at only 12 percent, but the numbers have steadily increased over the years.
Despite national trends, Duncan said he remains strongly opposed to legalization.
“A lot of people think it’s no more harmful than alcohol,” he said. “I completely disagree with that. I would argue that marijuana is one of the most destructive drugs out there, especially when it comes to adolescent-age children.
“In an adolescent brain that’s not fully formed, it does damage to that brain that you don’t see in a fully formed adult brain. I’ve seen case after case after case where young people are using that as a crutch to deal with normal adolescent stress. They become extremely dependent on it.”
Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, didn’t want to speculate on whether legalization would come to North Carolina.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” Caldwell said. “But there are things that have happened that I never believed would have.”
The Sheriffs’ Association hasn’t taken an official position on the issue because legalization hasn’t been proposed, he said, but he noted, “I’ve never heard a sheriff say he thought the laws on marijuana ought to be relaxed.”
A different view
Asheville attorney Ben Scales, long a proponent of easing marijuana restrictions, disagrees with Duncan’s assessment on the effects of the drug on youths, noting “The jury is still out on that. But I’m comfortable with restrictions on age.”
“I support regulation and taxation,” said Scales, who’s been a member of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws since the early 1990s. “It’s a plant that has many beneficial uses. We’re distracted by the intoxicating parts of it. It’s not dangerous to be treated as it is now.”
State-regulated access to marijuana would make it less available to young people, he said.
“I think regulation would allow us to keep it out of kids’ hands. Drug dealers don’t check IDs,” Scales said.
Like Duncan, Scales predicted marijuana would be legalized in North Carolina at some point.
“I think it will happen in some way,” he said. “I’m not sure we’ll ever have a system like we’re seeing out West.”
Scales said he planned to join medical groups in a meeting with state legislators in Raleigh in February in hopes of gaining support for a medical marijuana bill.
Scales was the architect of a medical bill introduced in the General Assembly six years ago that failed to gain traction.
Recent Buncombe busts
Against a backdrop of growing public acceptance of marijuana, the illegal marijuana market is thriving in the Asheville area. Buncombe County has seen a spike in large-scale busts starting in early December, with local officers confiscating more than 100 pounds of pot.
Brent Culbertson, SBI special agent in charge in the Asheville area, pointed to increasing collaboration between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies as a key to catching those suspected of drug trafficking.
“We are making more marijuana arrests and seizures in the past few years because of the increased working relationships and partnerships that we have had in Western North Carolina,” Culbertson said.
“Investigations often exceed county and state boundaries, and these partnerships are critical in continuing an investigation when we might otherwise come to an impasse,” he said. This has been the greatest factor in the increase in our arrests and seizures over the last few years.”
SBI statistics show a steady increase in the number of arrests statewide of people charged with marijuana sales and/or manufacturing over the past decade.
Those arrests climbed by 38 percent from 2004 through 2013, the most recent year from which figures are available.
Where it’s coming from
Sheriff Duncan said marijuana in the Asheville area is coming from three main sources — from local growers who maintain elaborate indoor operations, from Mexico and from states such as Colorado where pot is legal.
Despite laws against exporting marijuana from legal states, a new trend involves shipping large amounts from those states through carriers such as the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and FedEx, he said.
The marijuana from legal states is the best quality, Duncan said.
“You have people who have botany degrees who learn how to maximize the THC content in that marijuana,” he said. “Then you have some local folks who are pretty good and know what they are doing and grow a high quality marijuana.
“And then you have what’s commonly referred to as dirt weed, which is imported marijuana that generally comes from south of the border that has a lot of plant product with it, not just the bud of the marijuana plant but much of the whole plant ground up and packaged.”
THC — tetrahydrocannabinol — is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
In states where marijuana is legal, a wide range of related products are emerging, complicating enforcement in other states.
“You have everything from baked goods to cannabis oils that are being produced and sold out of these states,” Duncan said.
The average sale price for illegal marijuana is about $2,400 a pound, but that can vary depending on quality, Duncan said.
“There’s huge money in it,” he said. “And I think the reason we see such a prevalence of it is that, for a fair amount of the population, it’s accepted like alcohol.”
Asheville area busts
Large marijuana busts in the Asheville area since December:
• Dec. 3: A Black Mountain man was charged with possessing more than 18 pounds of marijuana.
He’s also accused of maintaining a house at 2 Arbutus Road for drug activity, according to warrants. Buncombe County Anti-Crime Task Force officers investigated.
• Dec. 16: A Leicester man was charged with possessing more than 50 pounds of marijuana.
He’s also accused of using a home at 98 Gibbs Road for drug activity, according to warrants. Buncombe County Anti-Crime Force officers investigated.
• Dec. 31: A Fairview man was charged with possessing 12 pounds of marijuana. Buncombe County Anti-Crime Task Force officers investigated.
• Jan. 8: An Asheville man was charged after police say he was found with more than 10 pounds of marijuana.
He also was accused of manufacturing, selling, delivery or possession of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school — the Irene Wortham Early Learning Center at 916 W. Chapel Road. State Alcohol Law Enforcement officers investigated.
• Jan. 15: A Fletcher man was charged after police say he was found with 9.6 pounds of marijuana. Buncombe County Anti-Crime Task Force officers made the arrest.
Marijuana sales/manufacturing arrests
The number of arrests in North Carolina on marijuana sales or manufacturing charges, from data provided by law enforcement agencies in the state and compiled by the SBI. Statistics are not available yet for 2014.
Source: State Bureau of Investigation
Marijuana possession arrests
The number of arrests in North Carolina on marijuana possession charges, from data provided by law enforcement agencies in the state and compiled by the SBI. Statistics are not available yet for 2014.
Source: State Bureau of Investigation
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