As feds acquiesce on marijuana, might the South legalize?

Now that the Department of Justice has said it won’t interfere with state regulation of cannabis in Washington and Colorado, a number of other states are moving forward with legalization plans. Will that include the socially conservative South?

Jason Fochtman/The Courier/AP
Sgt. Dorcy Riddle, with the Conroe Police Department, talks about the development of the marijuana plants found in west Conroe, Texas on Aug. 21, 2013. As many as 20,000 marijuana plants have been discovered on several plots in a heavily wooded area north of Houston.

Ask a Southerner when states in the former Confederacy will legalize recreational marijuana and you’re likely to get a chuckle and a bemused shake of the head. “Not happenin’ soon, son,” is a common reply.

While a growing number of states mostly out West and up in New England are on a legalization path after the Department of Justice’s decision to shrug its shoulders at state regulation (as long as it doesn’t involve kids, the black market, or federal property), none of them so far are in the South, where bedrock Baptist morals still push, not always successfully, against the sin of intoxication.

But look a little closer at Dixie’s denizens and one sees small but potent signs of a legalization groundswell, in part fueled by the South’s unique contributions to marijuana culture and prohibition. In Texas and all over the South, there are a lot Willie Nelson-style social and cultural “outlaw” attitudes, all of which overlap with Ron Paul libertarianism.

Indeed, some marijuana policy experts argue that Southern states may begin deciding to regulate instead of ban the use of the cannabis plant for medical and recreational purposes.

"This is an issue that hasn't been ready for primetime yet in the South. It may be that it's starting to be, and that's a good thing," Jill Harris, managing director of Drug Policy Action, told the Associated Press last year.

To be sure, the South and Midwest have remained mostly on the sidelines in the nation's marijuana-reform movement. Voters in the one semi-southern state to put it on the ballot last year – Arkansas – rebuffed it by a narrow margin.

Resisters cite culture and religious values and traditions, but others suggest political opposition may have more to do with the flow of government resources, says former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, including the prison industrial complex that’s rooted deeply in the South.

“Everyone who profits from the drug war, from the prison industrial complex to violent cartels and street traffickers, is invested in maintaining the status quo,” writes Mr. Stamper on Friday, in the Huffington Post.

Yet with the South being a complex creature, there are countervailing trends that suggest legalization isn’t such a long shot.

For one, states with different traditions but similar political mindset as Southern states – think Alaska – are putting legalization measures on the ballot next year.

More critically, the South is one of the country’s premier pot growing grounds, with Kentucky and Tennessee surpassing northern California in marijuana tonnage each harvest. Evidence also suggests that it’s used recreationally as much in the South as in other corners of the country. There’s even references to it in country songs. “Ain’t never too early to light one up,” singer Lee Brice croons in “Parking Lot Party.”

And as with all things Southern, history weighs heavy on the pot issue.

While Southerners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp, a non-psychoactive cannabis plant, it was also a North Carolina Congressman, Robert “Farmer Bob” Doughton, who gave rise to the “reefer madness” movement and introduced the Marijuana Stamp Act of 1937 in Congress, which planted a seed that grew into the War on Drugs.

Yet on the other side of that prohibitionist coin operated a guerilla homegrown movement that also fed into what’s become the West Coast’s pot cultivation empire, suggests blogger “Southern Ohioan.”

“Generations of growers of east Kentucky, east Tennessee, extreme southern Ohio, West Virginia, eastern Virginia, western NC, northwest SC, northern Georgia and northern Alabama taught the hippies in the 60s, the Deadheads of northern California, how to cross breed,” he writes. “They learned [to grow pot] from Southerners.”

So far, 19 states and the District of Columbia have passed medical marijuana laws, which allow the drug to be prescribed by a doctor and sold at dispensaries. Two – Colorado and Washington – have approved regulatory schemes that legalize private recreational use.

While New Hampshire joined the list of medical marijuana states last year, voters in Arkansas declined by a narrow margin. Organizers in Arkansas vow to come back with a ballot measure in 2014. Interestingly, over 100,000 more Arkansas voters cast ballots in support of medical pot than voted for Barack Obama in 2012.

For some, pot legalization in Texas, where the movie “Dazed and Confused” was filmed, seems a non-starter.

“Lots of changes would happen in Texas if everyone was getting high,” writes Nora Schreiber on, a Texas radio station. “Who knows what would really go on, but we can rest knowing that this … will not happen within our life time.”

Other polls suggest a shift in attitudes among at least some Southerners. Public Policy Polling showed earlier this year that 58 percent of North Carolinians, a solid majority, support medical marijuana. The same polling firm found a similar majority in West Virginia.

Texas, meanwhile, is home to the US Marijuana Party, and the South Texas College of Law will this fall offer a marijuana policy class aimed at helping states set up marijuana regulations.

So far, medical marijuana bills introduced in Southern states have all failed in legislative committees.

But that doesn’t faze pro-pot supporters like former US border agent Jamie Haase, who writes on the Daily Chronic website that “it’s inevitable that legalization will eventually make its way to the South.”

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