GUILFORD COUNTY — When former state legislator Earl Jones started pushing for reforms of the state’s marijuana laws 12 years ago, colleagues in the N.C. General Assembly thought he was blowing smoke.

Now it’s clear Jones was planting seeds that have sprouted across North Carolina and the nation.

Jones, a Democrat from Greensboro who served parts of High Point in the House, received little support at the State Legislative Building in Raleigh when he first started advocating for marijuana reform. His bills to sanction medical marijuana made no headway, even at a time when Democrats controlled both chambers of the General Assembly.

Now the politics of pot have shifted dramatically. Earlier this month, a state task force issued a report recommending major changes in North Carolina marijuana laws, including decriminalization.

In the fall general election, voters in five states approved ballot measures to loosen rules on pot through legalization or medicinal use. The states ranged from solidly Democratic New Jersey to heavily Republican Mississippi.

Fifteen states now have legalized use of pot in some fashion, while 36 states sanction medical marijuana.

Jones said he’s not surprised. When he was a legislative voice in the wilderness on marijuana reform, he believed people were way ahead of politicians on the issue.

“I thought it was unethical to criminalize use of marijuana, and I thought it was hypocritical because alcohol and tobacco harm more people,” Jones told The High Point Enterprise.

Jones introduced his first bill to promote the use of medical marijuana in the 2008 legislative session. Even liberal allies of Jones didn’t help him with his legislation, which languished in committee.

Seven years later, the General Assembly under Republican control approved legislation with provisions from Jones’ medical marijuana bill. The legislation legalized and regulated the use of hemp oil extract to treat severe epilepsy and other medical conditions involving seizures.

Now a state task force is recommending the state go much further in marijuana law reform. The N.C. Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice made several sweeping proposals on marijuana decriminalization because of racial inequities in the enforcement of laws.

Among the recommendations:

• Decriminalize the possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana by making the possession a civil offense.

• Expunge past marijuana convictions through an efficient process.

• Study the advantages and disadvantages for legalization of the possession, cultivation and sale of marijunana in North Carolina.

• Ask law enforcement to deemphasize marijuana possession arrests and prosecutors to lessen the priority of marijuana-related legal cases.

Jones said one of the arguments he made to decriminalize marijuana centered on the disproportionate prosecution of Blacks, especially since he represented a House district with large numbers of minorities in High Point and Greensboro.

“It’s way overdue,” said Jones, who last served in the House 10 years ago. “I think the task force should be looking at completely decriminalizing it.”

Jones said his original bill on medical marijuana was among the first considered last decade in three or four states.

“The reason I did it is that, at some point, I knew it would be decriminalized,” he told The Enterprise.

pjohnson@hpenews.com | 336-888-3528 | @HPEpaul