WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Possessing small amounts of marijuana could be like getting a traffic ticket in North Carolina if the state’s top attorney has his way.
Attorney General Josh Stein and the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, which he co-chairs, is recommending decriminalizing pot in small amounts.
They are also recommending expunging the records of those who were already convicted of low-level possession.
According to Stein, white and Black North Carolinians use marijuana at similar rates, yet Black people are disproportionately arrested and sentenced.
“Of the 35,000 plus who were arrested in 2019 [and] more than 10,000 who were convicted, nearly two-thirds of them are black in North Carolina,” said Stein. “When they are 20 percent of the state’s population.”
Right now, possession of up to half an 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 half an 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.
Decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana doesn’t mean it becomes legal, it would still be against the law.
“It’s still unlawful but it’s met with a minor penalty, a fine and not a criminal record,” said Stein
Deborah Maxwell is the head of the New Hanover County NAACP and is part of the Task Force, she says that they discussed much more than just decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.
“We talked about discrepancies of bail bonding,” said Maxwell. “Bias within the court system itself, requiring people to have training. Also looking at traffic stops, investigations...just a multitude of things. Yes, there are laws on the books but somehow those things discriminate against people of color.”
Jon David is the District Attorney for Brunswick, Bladen, and Columbus Counties and released this statement about the recommendations.
“Currently, I serve on the executive committee of the conference of district attorneys. Because this proposal is of statewide importance, I feel it is prudent to get a consensus among other elected district attorneys before speaking on this issue personally. I hope to provide a more definitive statement in the future.”
The task force also made the following recommendations.
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.