Marijuana: Legal, or Decriminalized?

Despite a trend in the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana throughout the country, marijuana remains outlawed in North Carolina. Regardless of your reason for having it, such as medical treatment, being caught with marijuana is a criminal offense in North Carolina which means a criminal record, fine, and even up to forty-five days behind bars if you are found with more than a half-ounce. 

But with marijuana usage in America increasing as more and more states relax the laws on it, can we expect North Carolina to make similar changes soon?

Last year, NC Governor Roy Cooper assembled the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. The prosecution of drug crimes is merely one of several points on a long list of discriminatory and biased practices in need of reform. To combat disparities in how marijuana crimes are charged, the Task Force recommended North Carolina decriminalize possession, deprioritize prosecution, and conduct the research necessary to evaluate whether North Carolina is ready for legalization. 

According to the research, marijuana possession is disproportionately charged and therefore, contributing to racial inequity in the state. By decriminalizing lesser marijuana possession to a civil offense and automatically expunging prior marijuana convictions that under the task force’s recommendation would now be considered only a civil offense, one injustice would be resolved, furthering the goal of racial equality in North Carolina. 

Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls is co-chair of the Task Force. In a November 2020 meeting, she explained the rationalebehind the recommendations. “Data made available to the Task Force shows that sixty-three percent of the more than ten-thousand convictions for simple possession of marijuana last year in North Carolina are people of color even though they are only thirty-percent of the population and research documents that marijuana use is at roughly equal percentages among Black and white populations,” she explained.

Other NC leaders are on board. According to a Twitter post from February, State Senator Wiley Nickel agrees with the consensus that marijuana should be legalized but says decriminalizing marijuana use comes first. “The first step is decriminalization…We’ll need to get medical marijuana done the right way before we can have the debate about full legalization in North Carolina.” According to a recent poll conducted by Elon University, Senator Nickel is not alone in thinking it is time to decriminalize marijuana. Sixty-seven percent of North Carolinians polled support reducing marijuana possession from a criminal offense to a civil charge. 

The Task Force submitted its final report to Governor Cooper in  December 2020. Over the next two years, the group will work with North Carolina policymakers and officials to implement their recommendations for eliminating racial disparities. Does this mean North Carolina is on its way to decriminalizing marijuana possession? The Task Force is calling for a legislative change, changes to state agency policy, local agency policy, and prosecutorial policy. There are a lot of players involved in policy change, so the road to reform is long but not impossible. We will have to watch and see as the Task Force champions for change over the next two years.