NC is becoming an outlier by banning weed. Will that soon change?
As states across the country legalize weed, marijuana reform proves difficult in the Tar Heel State.
If conservative states like South Dakota and Mississippi are relaxing their marijuana policies, will politically purple North Carolina be far behind?
Legalization initiatives triumphed in elections across the country this month, and those hoping North Carolina will follow suit have tempered expectations. While they see promise in a notable endorsement from the state, they know marijuana laws don’t change easily in the Tar Heel State.
Last week, the N.C. Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice recommended decriminalizing possession for up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana.
The task force, created by Gov. Roy Cooper and led by the state’s top law enforcer, Attorney General Josh Stein, cited data showing North Carolinians of color are disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession.
Holding small amounts of weed would still be a civil offense, but charges would no longer appear on criminal records. The task force also suggested studying the effects of legalizing the drug altogether.
“This recommendation is intended to help alleviate racial disparities in North Carolina’s criminal justice system,” Anita Earls, an associate justice on the N.C. Supreme Court, said in a statement. Earls noted white and Black people use marijuana at generally equal rates.
Yet the task force doesn’t have the power to reform North Carolina marijuana law. That falls to the General Assembly, which in recent years has resisted relaxing marijuana restrictions even as more states embrace legalization.
Polls and politicians don’t align
After Arizona, South Dakota, New Jersey, and Montana approved ballot measures to legalize recreational marijuana this month, 15 states will soon allow adults to purchase weed from licensed dispensaries. South Dakota and Mississippi also approved medical weed, becoming the 35th and 36th states to do so according to NORML, a nonprofit marijuana advocacy organization.
A Gallup Poll this month found 68% of Americans now support legalizing the drug, a rate that’s steadily risen since the 1970s. Local enthusiasm for medicinal weed appears strong as a 2017 Elon University poll showed 80% of North Carolina voters backed physicians being able to prescribe marijuana. While Democrats were more likely to support medical marijuana, the poll found 73% of Republicans favored it, too.
Yet the state doesn’t permit recreational or medicinal marijuana. Penalties for possessing up to a half-ounce include up to a $200 fine. Having up to 1.5 ounces, around 42 grams, can result in a fine and 45 days jail. Both charges are misdemeanors. Anything over 1.5 ounces of marijuana is considered a felony.
Over the past decade, state legislators have dashed a handful of medical marijuana bills.
“We’re behind the curb, definitely,” said Katrina Ramquist Wesson, executive director of NORML’s North Carolina chapter.
One reason why public sentiments don’t appear to align with state policy is that North Carolina, unlike many other states, doesn’t allow citizens to initiate ballot measures through petitions. In states like South Dakota and Montana, legalization policies passed by a direct popular vote even if politicians didn’t have the appetite to pass them.
To gain influence in the General Assembly, Wesson said NC NORML is looking to rev up its lobbying efforts.
“The (marijuana advocacy) constituency hasn’t been organized in North Carolina for a long time,” she said. “I think that’s going to be the key to change.”
The cannabis caucus
In 2018, a group of Democrats in the General Assembly formed a cannabis caucus to promote reform bills. Easing regulations, members argue, would boost the economy through increased tourism and tax-revenue, help medicinal users manage pain, and bolster racial justice.
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, calculated marijuana legalization would bring North Carolina an additional $125 million in tax revenue. Quentin Miller, the first Black sheriff in Buncombe County, said he supports legalizing medical marijuana and echoed the state task force that racial disparities in possession arrests persist.
Sentencing data shows people of color accounted for 62% of weed possession charges of 1.5 ounces or less last year, despite only making up around 37% of the population.
“I’ll just say it’s pretty obvious that the time has come to legalize cannabis in all its forms and to regulate it from the state,” said state Rep. John Ager, D-Buncombe, who is part of the cannabis caucus. He called the task force recommendations “a good first step” but his hopes for significant marijuana policy reform dampened after Republicans retained control of the General Assembly this month.
Last year, Ager cosponsored the Enact Medical Cannabis Act that didn’t get out of committee for a vote.
Sen. Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, the top Republican leaders in the General Assembly, did not respond to questions about addressing marijuana reform bills in the upcoming term.
Jim Quick, spokesperson for the conservative nonprofit N.C. Values Coalition, said he’d be open to studying the impacts of marijuana but remained cautious about swift changes.
“I don’t know that as a state or as a nation we’ve really spent the time to understand how the drug is changing,” he said. Quick doesn’t anticipate the legislature will pursue marijuana policy reform next term.
Last year, the General Assembly almost restricted cannabis access further after the House passed a ban on smokable hemp because it looks similar to weed.
Despite these structural and ideological barriers to reform, there’s belief that North Carolina is as close as ever before to rethinking its marijuana laws. The task force recommendation, nationwide elections, and renewed emphasis on racial justice – advocates and politicians say – signal reform is coming.
“Momentum is on our side,” Wesson said. “The wind’s at our backs, but it’s not going to be easy.”As states across the country legalize weed, marijuana reform proves difficult in the Tar Heel State.
Election results show NC remains behind the times on marijuana legalization
Photo- Getty Images
In case you missed it, reporter Will Doran of Raleigh’s News & Observer has an informative story yesterday about the rapid progress the cause of marijuana legalization is making across the country and how, sadly, North Carolina seems to remain immune to the trend.
As Doran explains, voters in Mississippi — yes Mississippi — voted overwhelmingly last week to approve a state ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana. Unfortunately, as is the case in so many other areas of public policy, North Carolina elected leaders lag stubbornly behind the times. This is from Doran’s story:
In addition to Mississippi, ballot initiatives are how two other Republican-led southern states, Florida and Arkansas, have also legalized medical marijuana over the last few years.
In North Carolina, the legislature alone can decide what will or won’t appear on the ballot. The two top Republican leaders at the legislature, Sen. Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, did not respond to questions about whether they would consider any such proposals.
And while a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of Americans — including 55% of Republicans — think marijuana should be legal, recent history shows GOP politicians in North Carolina remain skeptical.
The story also explains how a group of North Carolina officials in the Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice discussed the issue this week, but seemed to agree that any progress in our state remains a long way off — this despite the widely understood fact that law enforcement discriminates against people of color in enforcing current marijuana prohibitions.
Although Doran’s story doesn’t mention it, it’s also worth noting that four states (New Jersey, Arizona, Montana and South Dakota) approved ballot measures last week to legalize recreational marijuana. As a result, the scoreboard now shows that 15 states, two territories and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use, while 34 states and two territories allow medical marijuana.
All of which makes the silly prohibitionist stance of North Carolina officials that much more indefensible. Indeed, the notion that anyone in our state is facing criminal sanctions in 2020 for possessing marijuana for personal use is ridiculous.Several states move forward with ballot initiatives to liberaliz marijuan laws; Mississippi medical marijuana; New Jersey, Arizona, Montana, South Dakota ]]>