Cover Story: Medical marijuana

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Advocates and opponents of legalizing medical marijuana in North Carolina are talking about the issue face to face.

It seemed like a fad when California did it in 1992.  Now with more than 30 States from every region of the country passing or debating the issue it's becoming mainstream.

With North Carolina's history of growing tobacco, this $60 million a year crop could mean an economic boost.  And now, there's legislation on the table.

There was a town hall meeting to discuss the subject Thursday night on the UNC Charlotte campus.  It was being led by the sponsors of the bill now in the NC House to legalize marijuana for medical purposes only.

The question for many is it a way to aid the sick and help our economy or could it lead to even greater drug use?

North Carolina's bill is directed to people like Tim Timmons.

Suffering from the effects of multiple sclerosis.. this one-time bull rider and high school football player took a friend's suggestion several years ago.

"So I tried it and went whoah," he said.

Marijuana - as a kind of medicine.  He smokes it every night now.. helps him go to sleep.

It's changed his life, he says.  "It makes all the difference in the world."

"I think the time is right. I think it makes sense."  That's North Carolina state representative Kelly Alexander.  He's one of the co-sponsors of the House Bill that would make medical marijuana legal in the state.

The bill would license growers in the state.  Allow for the dispensing through a medical professional  And tax the product.

Sponsors believe decriminalizing it for medical use would eventually raise $60 million a year through taxes and licensing fees.

"It's there," says Rep. Alexander.  "We have a method of controlling it. We have a method of taxing it.. why not use it?"

Alexander and others believe farmers who used to grow tobacco could easily become licensed producers of medical marijuana.

Legalizing it began in California in the early 90s and legislation has worked its way east.  Fourteen states now have laws on the books making medical marijuana legal.  Thirteen others including North Carolina have bills pending.

It's a trend that's reached into the conservative deep South.  A rally in Alabama's capital city last month.  Demonstrators believe marijuana is a natural alternative that could decrease health care costs and give patients a better quality of life.

But opponents say decriminalizing marijuana will lead to a higher level of drug use.. and believe they have mainstream North Carolinians on their side.

Criminologist at UNC Charlotte Dr. Joseph Kuhns studied both sides and says legalizing it for medical reasons will likely lead to more use recreationally.

He says, "If it's good for medical reasons then it's deemed to be or perceived to be safe and then people might tend to use if for recreational reasons.  If it's available medically there will be a certain group of people that will abuse that availability."

North Carolina is already decriminalizing marijuana somewhat.  In many cases police won't arrest individuals for a small possession of marijuana.  Instead, in many cases cops will issue a citation.

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