The N.C. Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, convened by Gov. Roy Cooper and co-chaired by Justice Anita Earls and Attorney General Josh Stein, on Nov. 18 approved recommendations that include decriminalizing marijuana possession in small amounts.

It also recommended further study of 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.”

Earls said the recommendation is intended to help alleviate racial disparities in North Carolina’s criminal justice system.

She said data made available to the task force shows that 63% of the more than 10,000 convictions for simple possession of marijuana last year in North Carolina are people of color, while they are 30% of the population. Research shows that marijuana use is at roughly equal percentages among Black and white populations, Earls added.

Currently, possession of up to a half ounce of marijuana is a class 3 misdemeanor, subject to a fine up to $200 but not imprisonment. There were 31,287 charges and 8,520 convictions for this offense in 2019, with 61% of those convicted nonwhite.

Possession of more than a half ounce up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana is a class 1 misdemeanor, subject to up to 45 day in prison and a $200 fine. There were 3,422 charges filed and 1,909 convictions for this offense last year, with 70% of those convicted nonwhite.

The task force recommended legislation decriminalize the possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana by making this a civil offense and expunging past convictions through an automatic process.

It also recommended that North Carolina convene a task force of stakeholders, free from conflict of interest, to study 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.

Other recommendations include:

• improve drug enforcement data collection and reporting by requiring that every law enforcement agency participate fully in the National Incident-Based Reporting system;

• require 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 immediately deprioritize marijuana-related prosecution in non-ABC permitted locations.

The task force will release its full recommendations in a report to Gov. Roy Cooper on Dec. 15. The public meeting on Nov. 18 can be viewed at the N.C. Department of Justice’s YouTube channel. Information on previous recommendations and other Task Force action is available at https://ncdoj.gov/trec/.

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