Virginia, for those paying attention to social and fiscal matters, took a huge first step Friday toward joining the growing conga line of states blazing away — and raking in tax dollars — by peddling weed.
The ratified bill still requires the signature of Gov. Ralph Northam — a mere formality — and sales won’t go online for a few years yet.
But by approving such a measure, the Commonwealth of Virginia will become the 16th state to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
Perhaps more importantly, Virginia will be the first in the South to do so. Which means that tens of thousands of North Carolinians — not to mention Tennesseans, West Virginians and Kentuckians — will make the short drive across state lines to become 21st Century bootleggers. They’ll surely empty their wallets building schools and filling potholes in Virginia.
And odds are, for a variety of reasons, elected officials in Raleigh will watch it happen — a time-honored Tarheel tradition since the repeal of Prohibition more than 85 years ago.
Establishing a pattern
Head-in-the-sandism, for want of a better term, has been a feature of North Carolina politicians for generations, particularly as applied to governmental regulation of vice.
Legislating morality — or at least appearing to do so — has long been a political winner for state politicians.
A concise version of that history begins where it always does: Prohibition.
North Carolina jumped on that beer wagon early on by implementing in 1909 a statewide ban on alcohol, a full decade before the 18th Amendment made prohibition the law of the entire land.
Anyone care to guess what happened during those 10 years?
Speakeasies — “blind tigers” in the peculiar vernacular of the time — sprang up across North Carolina. Bootleggers fired up their modified cars (or hopped on northbound trains) and headed to Richmond, where sales of liquor remained legal.
Historians estimated that some $15 million ($388.5 million today’s dollars) rolled into the state each year during the ban.
Did the political class learn anything? It doesn’t seem like it.
After the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, it took another two years before the Legislature reluctantly set up the ABC commission that allowed individual localities to decide whether to remain dry.
We all know how well that's worked out over the years. Anyone old enough to remember brown-bagging or driving to another state to purchase something other than the watered down, “3.2” beer knows. about the many shortcomings of North Carolina’s strange alcohol laws.
Fun fact: In 1935, when this whole weird system really got started, two-thirds of North Carolina residents lived within 50 miles of either Virginia or South Carolina. Both states had widely legalized liquor sales while our legislators dragged feet.
One guess where the sales — and tax dollars — flowed freely. Officials in South Carolina and Virginia certainly knew.
Nearly the exact same scenario played out when states turned to lotteries as revenue streams.
While South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia reaped budgetary hauls from the sales of lottery tickets, North Carolina officials for years sat idly by watching cash money change hands across the borders.
Lottery sales in Virginia routinely topped $1 billion annually through the mid-2000s. “We always estimated that 10 percent of the sales came from North Carolina,” John Hagerty, a spokesman for the Virginia lottery, told me years ago.
Indeed, in fiscal 2006 — the last year before North Carolina finally got our own lottery games in stores — each of the top 10 retailers were on the state line. The leader was in Chesapeake; number two was The Lucky Horseshoe in Cana, Va., located on U.S. 52 a few hundred yards from Surry County.
And with Virginia now moving toward legalization of recreational marijuana, it looks and feels like deja vu all over again.
Anyone care to wager how long it might take — or how many millions of tax (and tourism) dollars — before North Carolina politicians wise up?
Here’s a few more numbers to munch on while you think: The three states that have had legal recreational marijuana the longest, Colorado, Washington and Oregon, combined have banked more than $1.3 billion in sales tax alone.
Studies in Virginia estimate their tax haul will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 million. Annually.
How much of that will come from the pockets of North Carolinians?
History of vice, prohibition and taxation suggests it will run to tens of millions, money going to Richmond rather than Raleigh — essentially up in smoke.
Photos: High times for marijuana sales, delivery
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