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Support For Marijuana In Coal Country


This week's announcement by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind the Obama-era regulations on prosecuting marijuana has done little to deter those who favor legalization. And that includes some supporters in conservative Appalachian coal country who are trying to pivot from coal to marijuana to help bring back prosperity. Susan Tebben of member station WOUB reports.

SUSAN TEBBEN, BYLINE: Pomeroy, Ohio, is a small town in Meigs County. Its main road sits right on the shore of the Ohio River. As the barges pass by, you can see West Virginia on the other shore. Donald Trump got 73 percent of the vote here, largely on hopes that he would restore coal and bring back desperately needed jobs. That hasn't happened. But in 2016, Ohio passed legislation legalizing cannabis for medicinal use, bringing an unexpected job opportunity to the area with a long history of illegal marijuana.

For decades, a particular strain called Meigs County gold was grown around here. Local legend says it was the drug preferred by the band the Grateful Dead. But here, Meigs County gold is more of a stigma than a brand. For years, locals pushed back on the image that the county was home to stoner legend. But Meigs County Commissioner Randy Smith says after the legislation passed, leaders here changed their tune.

RANDY SMITH: If you're somebody who can't see the promise in something like this for job creation only, even if that's the only positive you can see out of it, why would you continue to bring up this legacy of Meigs County gold and tie it to that?

TEBBEN: Last November, Meigs County was chosen by the state to house a medical marijuana growing operation. Smith, a former police officer, and all the county commissioners lobbied for it.

SMITH: This job, unfortunately, does not allow for personal opinion. It's got to be the 25,000 people that we represent. And these people want to go to work.

TEBBEN: That begrudging support for marijuana is shared by many here. Justin Strekal is with the marijuana advocacy group NORML. He says a 2017 Gallup poll showed increasing diversity of voters approving overall marijuana legislation.

JUSTIN STREKAL: That includes majority - outright majorities of Democrats, independents and, for the first time, Republicans.

TEBBEN: Joe Brumfield is a card-carrying member of NORML. He lives with muscular dystrophy and hates the idea of putting marijuana under state control.

JOE BRUMFIELD: I think it's going to be expensive. I think it's going to be hard for people to get access. There's a lot of people who really did the heavy lifting that are just getting stepped over.

TEBBEN: But for Smith and his fellow commissioners, the chance to capitalize on growing marijuana is just too enticing.

SMITH: Somebody at some point in time has got to put the brakes on the way things are and change them. I've got four kids. I'd love to see them have opportunities to stay around here or come back here after college.

TEBBEN: And with coal jobs dwindling throughout Appalachia, many here are eager for the jobs that will come with the marijuana growing operation now under construction. For NPR News, I'm Susan Tebben. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Tebben