I realize we are still struggling with our “new normal” and the ways in which our world has been completely shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are going to struggle for years because of this. Our way of life has changed, dramatically and permanently.
But with that change comes opportunity. If we are progressive in our actions and dedicated to positive outcomes that are beneficial locally and globally, we will overcome this time of sickness, stress and uncertainty to become forever stronger and better.
I don’t have all the answers. No one does. But I do have a plan to help with economic recovery for the Queen City. The plan would add between $2-5 billion to our economy annually — maybe more depending on scalability — while easily creating more than 7,500 jobs. The plan is for Charlotte to become the primary hub for legal marijuana within the South.
Before we get into the details of this plan, we should look into the past to see into the future. I strongly believe that the federal government will legalize cannabis within the next 12-14 months. Yes, marijuana will be completely legal by July 4th, 2021, nationwide. Let me tell you how I got there.
In 1933, the federal government repealed the 18th Amendment, making alcohol legal once again, for two simple reasons: More than 25% of the American population was unemployed and the government was broke. Sound familiar?
Of course, there were several other outside forces that applied pressure to end our alcohol prohibition. There was the “Mafia” crime element that prohibition had created and that the newspapers couldn’t get enough of. Then there was the fact that prohibition only affected the poor, while never being enforced among the higher class.
By 1924, organized criminals had seized control of alcohol distribution in the U.S. Violence and crime rose substantially throughout America. While we typically don’t equate marijuana with organized crime in the U.S., there is incredible violence happening near our border with Mexico, and locally, CMPD cited marijuana as a factor in a huge number of murders that occurred in 2019 following a record-setting spike in homicides. Marijuana itself is not a violent drug, but the illegal networks that run it are.
Let me be clear, the global COVID-19 pandemic has left every country in the world struggling. The continued U.S. prohibition of marijuana will only contribute to a rise in crime worldwide and here at home — crime that a wall will not protect against.
Our current marijuana prohibition is also class warfare. If you have read my previous articles involving marijuana enforcement, you know how the policy is racist by design. Only our brown and black neighbors worry about being arrested for marijuana. Whites get to flaunt their usage and even open CBD stores, pretending to be cannabis experts, just like the Roaring ’20s, when the white and wealthy had access to speakeasies with imported whiskeys and scotches. Meanwhile, the poor were poisoned with bathtub gin.
History repeats itself. And now 100 years later, we can be confident that the U.S. federal policy regarding marijuana legalization will change fairly rapidly. But what does that have to do with Charlotte and economic recovery?
First, we should admit that nothing is going to get done regarding marijuana on a state level before federal laws change. Not only do we have a majority of right-wingers who are morally against it, but even Gov. Roy Cooper hates the idea of marijuana legalization. He is from that old-school generation, like fellow Democrat and presidential candidate Joe Biden, that considers marijuana a gateway drug regardless of the facts proving otherwise.
Even if North Carolina were to elect a Democrat-majority General Assembly in 2020, Cooper is too aligned with his buddies in law enforcement from his time as our state’s attorney general to move the issue forward as rapidly as will be needed to aid in our economic recovery. Charlotte’s economic recovery is going to fall upon our city leadership.
We need to look at the current marijuana industry that is operating in the U.S. and its future growth projection to best understand what we can do to stimulate Charlotte’s economy. The regulated marijuana market in the U.S. will do $15-17 billion in sales in 2020. This market includes all the state-regulated medical programs and the recreational markets of the West Coast, Massachusetts and Maine. On top of these sales we need to add the totals of marijuana’s Legacy Market, aka The Black Market. The projected total of out-of-market, non-compliant sales adds another $30 billion in revenue for 2020. That $30 billion is what Charlotte needs to capture in preparation for national legalization.
Large portions of this $30 billion in soon-to-be legal marijuana sales will create economic opportunities in places that are willing to work with cannabis companies. This is the way capitalism works. Cities offer incentives to companies to lure them to open headquarters or large offices and create jobs all the time. Charlotte is famous for offering incentives to create opportunities, just ask Panthers owner David Tepper what our city leaders have given him to bring MLS here and help stimulate economic growth in east Charlotte.
So what exactly does Charlotte need to do to ensure the marijuana industry comes here? It’s easier and more cost effective than you may think. The city should begin the zoning and permitting process for marijuana-related businesses as soon as the COVID crisis passes. Create a committee, one of those task forces the city is so fond of, to work this industry into the 2040 Comprehensive Plan — cultivation, retail storefronts, product facilities and laboratories. Get the public’s feedback and make the process transparent.
Next the city needs to make new requirements for permitting. Unlike the breweries that created zero equity for minorities in Charlotte, we need to include requirements that stimulate ownership opportunities and career paths for all Charlotteans, not just the white and wealthy.
Now here’s the fun part. Once we have the zoning, permitting and licensing requirements for Charlotte, the city should allow the issuance of these permits and licenses pre-legalization. Let the industry build out what is needed for successful cannabis operations in preparation for the future. As long as marijuana production does not take place until federal legalization, the city would not be breaking any laws or rules within our state, effectively circumventing North Carolina’s Dillion Rule policy.
Finally, Charlotte should offer incentives for out-of-state marijuana operators willing to invest in the city. All that cash currently being stockpiled in places like Colorado and California needs a reason to come here. Just like the campaign the city created in an attempt to lure Amazon here, we do the same for marijuana (only we do better than the ill-fated #CLTisPrime campaign). We show how committed we are to their business needs and provide them the tools they need to grow and flourish.
As a former marijuana business owner and operator, I can tell you firsthand that if Charlotte’s government were to say, “We are here for your cannabis business, we are going to work with you 100% and we are not going to overtax and overregulate your business,” the industry would flock here in droves. Charlotte has everything they need to be successful: banking, airport, land, infrastructure, population. We could be the Denver of the South by this time next year.
There are going to be lots of unemployed in Charlotte for years to come. Many buildings that once housed restaurants and small businesses will be empty. This is our new normal. But we have an opportunity to be progressive and outsmart the rest of the country and help Charlotte recover post COVID-19. I don’t think marijuana is going to be the complete answer, but it does provide us hope and a real chance to build a better future for us, the citizens of Charlotte.
*A version of this article appeared in the QC Nerve, a locally-owned Charlotte publication.