State panel calls for not prosecuting possession of small amounts of marijuana

Posted November 18, 2020 2:11 p.m. EST
Updated November 19, 2020 9:39 a.m. EST

— A panel appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper called Wednesday for decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, saying arrests for such crimes disproportionately affect Black residents.

The North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, which is chaired by Attorney General Josh Stein and Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls, also called for studying the prospect of further legalizing the cultivation, sale and possession of marijuana in the state.

"You cannot talk about improving racial equity in our criminal justice system without talking about marijuana," Stein said in a statement. "White and Black North Carolinians use marijuana at similar rates, yet Black people are disproportionately arrested and sentenced."

Possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana is a Class 3 misdemeanor in North Carolina, subject to a fine of up to $200. In 2019, there were 31,287 charges and 8,520 convictions for the offense, and 61 percent of those convicted were nonwhite, according to the task force.

Possession of between a half-ounce and 1.5 ounces is a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 45 days in jail and a $200 fine. There were 3,422 charges and 1,909 convictions for the offense last year, and 70 percent of those convicted were nonwhite, according to the task force.

The task force recommended legislation to decriminalize the possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana by making it a civil offense. Past convictions would be automatically expunged.

The panel also recommended that North Carolina convene another task force to study the pros and cons and options for legalization of possession, cultivation and sale of marijuana, including government or nonprofit monopoly options.

The recommendations are unlikely to gain traction in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, however, which hasn't allowed medical marijuana bills to get even a committee hearing in recent years.

Last year, an effort to expand hemp production in North Carolina almost derailed the annual farm bill. Law enforcement advocates noted that legalizing smokable hemp, which provides medicinal benefits but doesn't have the THC that marijuana does to make users high, could jeopardize marijuana arrests and any busts where the smell of marijuana provided probable cause for officers to stop or search someone.

Changes to state marijuana laws aren't included in recommendations being drafted by a committee formed by House Speaker Tim Moore to address criminal justice reform, nor did the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association address the issue in recent reform suggestions.

Dory MacMillan, a spokeswoman for Cooper, declined to answer when asked whether the governor supports the decriminalization proposal and plans to include it in his legislative agenda.

"This task force has done important work to develop recommendations on ways we can make our criminal justice system more effective and equitable. The governor appreciates their careful attention to these issues and looks forward to reviewing their full report when it is presented," MacMillan said in an email.

The task force plans to submit its final recommendations to Cooper by Dec. 15.

WRAL Statehouse Reporter Travis Fain contributed to this report.

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