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Opinion: It’s Time to Empower Those Hurt Most By N.C.’s Marijuana Laws

[Editor’s Note: We are excited to launch a new partnership with Carolina Cannabis News as they cover the inevitable end of marijuana prohibition in North and South Carolina. The following is the first in what will be plenty of shared content to come between our two sites. Check out their website for more cannabis-related news.

North Carolina General Assembly and legislative offices in Raleigh. (Photo courtesy of WikiCommons)

This legislative session, the N.C. General Assembly will consider reforms to marijuana laws. Lawmakers will enter into many of those discussions with data based on survey data that shows almost 80 percent of North Carolinians support the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. According to the same 2017 Elon University poll, only 45 percent support marijuana for recreational use.

It’s important to point out, however, that the lower figures in support of recreational cannabis contradict the beliefs held by many of those who are most underrepresented in our community, which means the voices of people who believe in legalization at a higher rate — such as adults ages 18-34 — will go unheard.

Let’s couple that with a sobering economic statistic: In North Carolina, the average income for millennials is $20,000 per year, even as millennials are now the largest segment of the U.S. population.

These numbers are particularly interesting considering that Charlotte, the largest city in North Carolina, has extensive barriers to generational income advancement to grapple with. Everyone who lives here knows by now that researchers from the Equality of Opportunity Project ranked the city at the bottom of the 50 largest metropolitan areas for economic mobility. In other words, children born into poverty here have the lowest odds of making it out.

The sad truth is that people who live in areas of high economic inequality also live in stories that define their population as insignificant and unworthy of inclusion in civic life. The last thing we need is another gap between the rich and the poor — especially in terms of how people engage, how accessible tools for engagement are and the issues that are addressed.

From a tour of Charlotte with Dr. Ben Carson, Sec. of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, on March 17, 2017. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Housing)

As Harvard professor and author Theda Skocpol argues in her book Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life, “The people most likely to take local community and social capitalism to heart — to benefit from them and feel well-satisfied — are, I fear, the same folks already flourishing, in increasingly privatized ways, in America’s more lightly governed version of just plain old capitalism.”

What’s more alarming is what happens when people in underserved communities accept the negative labels placed upon them: They become passive about many of the ill-informed laws that often only end up hurting them.

According to a recent study conducted by UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute and Johnson C. Smith University, 45 percent of people who call Charlotte home are “Interested Bystanders.” That is, almost half of the local population is aware of but not involved in local issues.

When it comes to the way policy impacts community, the people we need to hear from the most aren’t getting involved in those discussions. Instead, they distrust the civic process as well as the people associated with it. Areas with concentrated materialism, high levels of “economic inequality, and political systems in which individuals do not wield equal power in influencing government decisions,” the author of The Psychology of Citizenship and Civic Engagement points out, “tend to have citizens that spurn government and participate less in civic life.”

Economic inequality is a major barrier to involvement. But I’d also argue another, more significant reason people don’t engage is because they don’t feel invited to do so.

Why Should We Get Involved?

When citizens feel oppressed or unheard, they enlarge their presence, raise their voices and intentionally choose to engage in activities that positively impact their lives. Ultimately, they can shift negative opinions to better reflect reality.

On an individual level, civic participation is an effective way to create positive tension and helps people understand the connection between individual freedom and social order. It also empowers people to take action in support of personal transcendence, and gives them, as stated in Core Competencies in Civic Engagement, “an identity and meaning to their own being.” A person who is involved in their community also becomes more confident in their own ability to make an impact. They take ownership of certain issues.

The power of this type of active personal engagement cannot be understated. When a person invests time and energy into their community consistently — going beyond random acts of volunteerism that fail to fully engage — they ensure that community-based change takes hold.

NORML activists protest in front of the NCGA building during the group’s 2016 lobby day.

Of course, motivating people who are not secure or have not been empowered to participate is difficult at best. At one time or another, we’ve all found ourselves sitting under a heavy blanket of self-doubt, wondering who we are and contemplating whether or not we matter.

But imagine that feeling amplified to include whole segments of the population — such as the poor, the undocumented, the youth and people of color. The feeling moves from a momentary experience to a way of living, and often for generations.

It is no wonder that many of those marginalized by our systems of power choose to be bystanders.

We as a community must accept that inviting people to participate is not enough. Words are simply not enough. We must instead intentionally include and empower those bystanders, and help them understand the importance of civic engagement to ensure all voices are represented.

We as a community must accept that inviting people to participate is not enough. Words are simply not enough. We must instead intentionally include and empower those bystanders.

We must move beyond our own circles of comfortable agreement and embrace differences of opinion with the knowledge that when a greater number of people participate in the community, the livelier and more progressive the community becomes.

The legalization of cannabis is a meaningful issue linked to North Carolina’s future economic and social prosperity. It’s also an issue in which segments of our population have routinely been ignored. Here’s a chance for us to connect with those citizens in ways that ultimately reshape our state’s stories to become inclusive of all of us, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

How to Help

Here are a number of ways you can show up for others so that they in turn can participate in matters of civic importance.

  1. Be a host for roundtable discussions on the legalization of cannabis so as to shift people from passive receptors of information and decisions to active and aware participants. (TIP: have the discussion take place in community sites where transportation is not an issue).
  2. Be the source for those without resources within the non-profit or government agencies that serve the segments of the population that are ignored or unheard, especially as it relates to policy formation, networking and project planning.
  3. Take your expertise and leadership ability directly to the communities that will be impacted. Focus on making others leaders, not simply transferring knowledge. Engage others unlike you, listen to them and empower them, knowing that information alone is powerless.
  4. Craft letter-writing campaigns (physical and digital) to be delivered to newspapers and local government officials.
  5. Create sites (physical and online) with the understanding that there is power in social networking to shape social conscience.
  6. Be a person of reflection. Commit to understanding cultural and personal bias as it impacts decision-making and make room in your heart for a diversity of voices.

Become familiar with areas of engagement and non-participation within your own community and city by referencing the National Conference on Citizenship. Also, find out who represents you in the NCGA and discover how to contact them.

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