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Why North Carolina’s medical marijuana debate is moot

Greenlife Remedies has a store on Pineville-Matthews Road.
Steve Harrison/WFAE
Greenlife Remedies has a store on Pineville-Matthews Road.

Earlier this month, North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore said a medical marijuana bill is likely dead for this session.

It passed the Senate. And a majority of House members back it.

But a majority of the GOP House caucus isn’t on board, and Moore said he wants a House Republican majority to support anything that moves forward.

So for now, North Carolina remains one of the most strict states when it comes to marijuana. The Old North State is one of just 12 states that doesn’t allow either recreational or medical marijuana.

But while lawmakers are squabbling over medical marijuana, they are missing the (hemp) forest for the trees.

Stores across Charlotte are now selling legal hemp-based products that will get you high. I did a story about it for WFAE. You can read it here.

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The background:

In 2018, the federal government removed hemp from a list of controlled substances, so long as it contained less than 0.3% Delta 9 THC. That’s part of the plant that gets you high.

In North Carolina, lawmakers last year passed a law that aligned the state’s hemp regulations with the federal government, specifically allowing for hemp derivatives.

Over the last few years, the power of the market went to work. Growers and manufacturers found ways to extract psychoactive substances from hemp that doesn’t have Delta 9 THC.

Some, like Delta 8, have been around for a while. One of the newest products is THC-A, which is not psychoactive on its own. But proponents say that when exposed to heat — by baking, vaping or smoking — it converts to regular THC.

Between six months and a year ago, traditional CBD stores began selling THC-A flower and pre-rolled joints that get you high.

I spoke to one woman at Greenlife Remedies on Pineville-Matthews Road. She said she spends about $200 a month on hemp flower “just to mellow out a little bit and go on with my day.”

“Honestly, I like this stuff better (than marijuana) and compared to going to Denver (Colorado) the quality of it is pretty much the same,” she said. “I still get the same effects if I go to a state where it’s legal.”

Today, there is almost no regulation of the state’s hemp industry, including an age limit on who can buy it. (The stores I visited, however, were enforcing their own age limits.)

“I have prosecutors calling me all the time saying, ‘Hey I have a kid, I found him with a bag Delta 8 gummies in middle school, and I want to charge him,’” said Phil Dixon with UNC’s School of Government. “And it’s not a crime.”

Democrats and Republicans introduced a bill this year in the General Assembly to place some regulations on hemp sales, such as having age minimums. The bill appears to be stalled.

Meanwhile, the legal hemp industry is flourishing.

Said Dixon: “These are intoxicating hemp products that do cause impairment.”

The feds torpedo Triangle’s commuter train. Will they do the same to Charlotte?

Charlotte leaders trying to build support for a $13.5 billion transit plan have said one reason to move forward is the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill, which is pumping billions of dollars into transit.*

The argument is that there is essentially money for the taking.

But The News & Observer reported Wednesday that the Federal Transit Administration told Triangle leaders it won’t fund a proposed commuter rail line from Durham through Raleigh and to Johnston County.

The paper wrote: Representatives of the Federal Transit Administration told a group of Triangle leaders that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how people use transit and that trains that serve morning and evening commuters to central business districts have become outdated. 

Instead, FTA officials said the government will provide money for cheaper and more flexible bus rapid transit systems like the ones Raleigh and Chapel Hill plan to build in the coming years, according to Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin.

This is important to the city of Charlotte for several reasons.

The biggest part of Charlotte’s $13.5 billion plan is the Silver Line light-rail from Matthews to the airport. But there are also plans to build the Red Line, a commuter rail line from uptown to Mooresville.

The biggest roadblock so far has been that Norfolk-Southern won’t allow the Charlotte Area Transit System to use its tracks. Now the federal government is saying it’s not interested in commuter rail at all because of low ridership. That’s strike two.

Will Charlotte leaders discuss the FTA’s bad news with the northern Mecklenburg towns and Iredell County? Or will city leaders press ahead, saying the Red Line is different and that it can convince the federal government it’s a worthwhile project?

The problem is that it will be hard for CATS to make the case that its commuter line would be better than Raleigh’s.

Here is how Charlotte Area Transit System ridership compares to pre-pandemic levels from 2019:

  • Ridership in the spring of 2023 (March, April, May) was 58% of the ridership in the spring of 2019.
  • Ridership in the winter of 2022/2023 (December, January, February) was 58% of the ridership in the winter of 2019/2020.
  • Ridership in the fall of 2022 (September, October, November) was 55% of the ridership in the fall of 2019.
  • Ridership in the summer of 2022 (June, July, August) was 56% of the ridership in the summer of 2019.
  • Ridership in the spring of 2022 (March, April, May) was 55% of the ridership in the spring of 2019.

There is a more detailed metric to illustrate why the Red Line may not get funded: Ridership on the 77x express bus, which follows a similar route to where the new train would go.

In 2012, that route carried nearly 17,000 passengers a month. In April of this year, it carried between 3,400 and 5,200 passengers. (CATS has two different ways of counting riders. One is by how many people pay and the other is an estimate.)

Using the most optimistic number for CATS, ridership is down nearly 70%. Using the lower number, it’s down 80%.

City Council member Ed Driggs, who is helping lead the city’s efforts for the transit plan, said Charlotte hasn’t been told that commuter rail is out.

“If there were a blanket statement that (the federal government) isn’t doing commuter rail then that would be a big deal,” he said. “But we are not hearing that.”

He said Charlotte plans to move forward with plans to build rail.

The FTA’s position on Raleigh’s commuter train could also impact the Silver Line.

CATS has chosen a route that skirts uptown rather than passing straight through it. One reason is that city leaders believe the second route would create more development.

But the route that goes into the heart of uptown would have about 25% more riders today than the alignment that loops around the city. CATS also did ridership projections for the future, but WFAE found numerous problemswith those forecasts..

If the FTA is scrutinizing ridership, perhaps Charlotte might want to follow the plan that … has the most riders.

GOP gives up in Charlotte citywide races

Filing for the September primary ended the week before last.

One thing notable: For the first time since Charlotte went to partisan elections in 1975, there are no Republicans running for the four City Council at-large seats.

The GOP last won a citywide seat in 2009. The party came close to winning a seat in 2015, when Republican John Powell was 248 votes away from the fourth at-large seat.

The party only ran one candidate in 2019, but it fielded council member Tariq Bokhari’s “slate” in 2022. All lost badly. Kyle Luebke finished fifth — nearly 14,000 votes behind the fourth-place finisher.

Democrats hold a 9-2 advantage on City Council.

It could become a 10-1 advantage, if Democrat Stephanie Hand defeats Republican Tariq Bokhari in a District 6 rematch. Hand lost by only 357 votes last year.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.