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Will North Carolina legalize marijuana?

RALEIGH – Attorney General Josh Stein announced on Nov. 18 that the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, convened by Gov. Roy Cooper and co-chaired by he and Justice Anita Earls, adopted recommendations related to marijuana. Those include a recommendation to decriminalize marijuana possession in small amounts and to further study potential legalization of marijuana possession, cultivation, and sale.

“You cannot talk about improving racial equity in our criminal justice system without talking about marijuana,” said Stein. “White and Black North Carolinians use marijuana at similar rates, yet Black people are disproportionately arrested and sentenced. Additionally, it is time for North Carolina to start having real conversations about a safe, measured, public health approach to potentially legalizing marijuana.”

“Data made available to the Task Force shows that 63 percent of the more than 10,000 convictions for simple possession of marijuana last year in North Carolina are people of color even though they are only 30 percent of the population and research documents that marijuana use is at roughly equal percentages among Black and white populations,” said Justice Earls. “This recommendation is intended to help alleviate racial disparities in North Carolina’s criminal justice system.”

Right now, possession of up to ½ ounce of marijuana is a class 3 misdemeanor, not subject to imprisonment but subject to a fine up to $200. In 2019, there were 31,287 charges and 8,520 convictions for this offense; 61 percent of those convicted were nonwhite.

Possession of more than ½ ounce up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana is a class 1 misdemeanor, subject to up to 45 days imprisonment and a $200 fine. In 2019, there were 3,422 charges and 1,909 convictions for this offense; 70 percent of those convicted were nonwhite.

The Task Force recommends legislation to decriminalize the possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana by making such possession a civil offense and expunge past convictions through an automatic process.

The Task Force further recommends that North Carolina convene a Task Force of stakeholders, free from conflict of interest, to study the pros and cons and options for legalization of possession, cultivation and/or sale, including government or not for profit monopoly options. The study should be guided by a public safety, public health, and racial equity framework.

Improve drug enforcement data collection and reporting by:

Requiring every law enforcement agency to participate fully in the NIBRS system.

Requiring every law enforcement agency to publish drug enforcement data on its department website in easy searchable fashion, including number of arrests and citations by drug, quantity, race, gender, and reason for search. This may necessitate providing additional resources to law enforcement agencies, especially smaller agencies.

Deemphasize (or make the lowest drug law enforcement priority) felony drug possession arrests for trace quantities under .25 grams in non-ABC permitted locations.

Deemphasize (or make the lowest drug law enforcement priority) marijuana possession arrests in non-ABC permitted locations.

Prosecutors should immediately deprioritize marijuana-related prosecution in non-ABC permitted locations.

The Task Force will release its full recommendations in a report to Gov. Cooper on Dec. 15. That date has been extended from Dec. 1 due to difficulty holding meetings and conducting work as a result of the pandemic.

To view the Nov. 18 public meeting, visit the North Carolina Department of Justice’s YouTube channel. Information on previous recommendations and other Task Force action is available at https://ncdoj.gov/trec/.