Taylor Batten

No, I’m not high: Medical marijuana is here to stay

Medical marijuana is now legal in 30 states and counting. How long will North Carolina hold out?
Medical marijuana is now legal in 30 states and counting. How long will North Carolina hold out? AP

Kelly Alexander doesn’t bank at Wells Fargo. But if he did, he’d be yanking his account and moving to another bank after what Wells did to Nikki Fried in Florida.

Rep. Alexander, a Mecklenburg Democrat, is perhaps the North Carolina legislature’s most outspoken proponent of legalizing medical marijuana. So he was outraged when Wells shut down Fried’s account because she advocates for medical marijuana and accepts campaign contributions from the industry as a candidate for Florida agriculture commissioner.

“I find that kind of attempt to restrain speech to be abhorrent,” Alexander told me this week.

Wells’s punishment of Fried is bizarre. The bank says federal law prevents it from banking with “marijuana businesses or for related activities.” But Fried is a candidate for office arguing for a public policy – a policy that is already the law of the land in Florida, in fact. Wells did not accuse her of selling marijuana, smoking it, or possessing it. She was merely advocating for its use for medicinal purposes.

But Charlotte’s Alexander knows what a tough road that can be. For a decade, Alexander has been a lonely voice in North Carolina’s General Assembly calling for legalization of medical marijuana. His quest has seemed quixotic all this time, but now something notable is happening: The world is coming around to Kelly Alexander’s point of view, and it might be just a matter of time before it is N.C. law.

Thirty states have legalized medical marijuana, and many of those have legalized recreational marijuana as well. Those states were convinced that it is an effective treatment for a variety of ailments, from cancer to glaucoma to epilepsy. It helps combat pain, nausea and other symptoms without the side effects of many other treatments.

A Yahoo/Marist poll last year showed 83 percent of respondents favored legalizing medical marijuana, and a Pew poll this year found 61 percent favor legalizing the use of marijuana in general. In some states, the legislature has passed a law legalizing its medical use; in other states, the public voted to do so. Florida voters approved medical marijuana in 2016, with 71 percent voting in favor.

Alexander is in the funeral business. He says he has seen people in hospice who suffered far more than they needed to and that medical marijuana might have helped them. He also argues that opioid abuse, which is high and rising in North Carolina, has dropped in states that legalized medical marijuana. He held a town hall on the topic last Saturday that he said attracted more than 100 people, including several elected officials. Two ideas that emerged: creating a medical marijuana caucus within the legislature that could serve to push and educate on the issue; and giving cities or counties a local option on the question. As with alcohol, each county could decide the issue for itself.

There’s no question it’s a big business just waiting to open shop in North Carolina. Alexander estimates it could quickly become a billion-dollar business in North Carolina. A 5 percent sales tax like Alexander is mulling would bring in $50 million on that amount of sales.

Wells Fargo might think it can’t bank with Nikki Fried. But a large majority of Americans now agree with her, and North Carolina should consider if it wants to continue to deprive patients and state coffers of the benefits.

“Being against the growth of this industry,” Alexander said, “is like standing on the beach at high tide and commanding the tide not to come in.”

Email: tbatten@charlotteobserver.com