Is North Carolina ready for marijuana reform?

By on January 19, 2021


Around the nation, momentum for change has built

By Matthew Zabierek | Outer Banks Voice

Public polling has shown that a large majority of North Carolinians support legalizing medical marijuana. A statewide task force appointed by Governor Roy Cooper recently recommended decriminalizing marijuana possession. And this past November, voters in red states such as Mississippi, Montana and South Dakota passed referenda to legalize either medical or recreational marijuana — bringing the number of states to do so up to 36.

For many, all these developments raise a question: Will North Carolina remain in a shrinking minority of states to prohibit medical and recreational marijuana?

“I did not think Mississippi was going to beat us to it,” said Zac Lentz, board chairman of North Carolina’s chapter of NORML, a cannabis consumer advocacy organization.

But even as more states move towards some form of decriminalization or legalization of marijuana, there has been very little momentum in North Carolina. “It’s kind of bleak, it has been for a couple of years,” Lentz said.

The main hurdle in North Carolina — and what sets it apart from many other states, according to advocates — is that the state’s constitution doesn’t allow for “citizen-led ballot initiatives,” which enable residents to get a referendum question on the ballot with enough petition signatures even if politicians don’t approve. Voters in Mississippi, for example, petitioned to get medical marijuana on the ballot and passed it overwhelmingly (74%) despite strong objections from Republican governor Tate Reeves and other state leaders.

“That’s the key, really,” Phil Dixon, defender educator at UNC’s School of Government said about citizen-led ballot referendums. Dixon is a former criminal trial lawyer and has written about hemp and cannabis issues at UNC for about three years.

“I’ve heard from advocacy groups that say this is why they don’t even bother focusing on North Carolina anymore,” he added, “because all these states where you’ve seen this action to force legalization and decriminalization, most of that has been accomplished through a ballot referendum…If there was [a citizen-led ballot initiative in North Carolina], I think there’s probably ample support to at least get a…referendum on the ballot.”

Several polls have shown that about three-quarters of North Carolinians support medical marijuana, and a little less than half support recreational marijuana. An Emerson College poll last year found 72 percent support for legalizing medical use and 48 percent support for legalizing recreational use. A 2017 Elon University poll found similar levels of support for legalization — 80 percent for medical and 45 percent for recreational.

Nationally, a Gallup Poll released in November 2020 found that 68% of adults support marijuana legalization, a number that has essentially doubled in about 20 years. Nationally, that includes almost half (48%) of Republicans.

But that support isn’t reflected in the North Carolina General Assembly, which has shown little to no appetite for discussion on cannabis reform bills. Bills seeking to legalize or decriminalize have been introduced, but fail to gain traction, often dying at the committee level without a public hearing.

In 2015, North Carolina did become one of the first states to enact a law that allowed the use of hemp extract, otherwise known as CBD oil, as an alternative treatment for children with intractable epilepsy as long as the hemp extract contains less than .9 percent THC, the chemical in cannabis that produces a high.

Efforts to decriminalize and legalize marijuana got some new life last month when Governor Cooper’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice recommended decriminalizing possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana and convening a “task force of stakeholders” to study the possibility of legalization.

Cooper, a Democrat, appointed the task force last year to examine how current criminal justice policies disproportionately affect communities of color following the police killing of George Floyd.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, who co-chaired the 24-member task force, said the group looked at marijuana reform in light of statistics showing Black North Carolinians are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white ones.

“Black North Carolinians and white North Carolinians smoke marijuana at very similar rates, yet African Americans are three times more likely to be arrested and convicted of simple marijuana possession than white people,” Stein said in a phone interview with the Voice. “We cannot have the laws applied inequitably.”

The task force’s final report states that in 2019, 61% of those convicted for possession of less than a half-ounce of marijuana in North Carolina were non-white. And according to public data compiled and analyzed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black individuals were about three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in North Carolina than white ones in 2018.

The ACLU data, which calculates arrest rates based on the number of arrests by race and the size of that racial population, concluded that Black people were almost 12 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Dare County as white people. And in a 2013 report, the ACLU called out Dare County for having one of the highest disparities among all counties in the country based on 2010 arrest data.

In an interview with the Voice, Dare County Sheriff Doug Doughtie said he was “shocked” by the ACLU numbers that he said do not match his own internal data. He also noted that his department usually issues just a citation with no arrest unless someone is also being charged with an intent to sell.

The sheriff indicated that he doesn’t have an issue with legalizing medical marijuana, but opposes legalizing recreational use because he said it can act as a gateway to other drugs. “I’ve arrested and talked to a lot of people that said that [marijuana] got them into other drugs,” he said.

Unlike with legalization, decriminalizing marijuana would mean that people caught possessing it would still get in trouble, however, it would be treated as a civil, not criminal, offense and would be punished with a fine or other civil penalties. Virginia, for example, voted last year to set the civil penalty of $25 for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.

The task force wrote in its final report that, “when determining what civil penalty is appropriate, legislators should consider alternatives to fines such as community service to avoid inequity in civil justice debt.” The task force also recommended the state to expunge any prior convictions of marijuana possession, “so that they have a clean slate going forward,” Stein said.

The marijuana reform recommendation, a small piece of the task force’s overall report containing over 100 recommendations, will now go to the General Assembly, which can take or leave each recommendation.

Despite the legislature’s resistance to cannabis bills in the past, Stein said he is optimistic the recommendations will pass. He pointed out that the legislature last summer approved two criminal justice reform bills — The First Step Act, which allows judges to disregard mandatory minimum rules when sentencing low-level drug offenders in certain cases, and The Second Chance Act, which makes it easier for people with old, non-violent felonies and misdemeanors to get their records expunged.

Jim Quick, spokesperson for the conservative lobbying group NC Values Coalition, wasn’t as confident the recommendations will pass this session. He said that while the problem of racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests “doesn’t fall on deaf ears” in the General Assembly, he doesn’t see it being a high priority for lawmakers given the pressing challenges created by the pandemic.

“I think it would be an uphill battle in a regular year, but you do the COVID overlay on top of it, I just think that’s a tough ask for this Republican General Assembly,” Quick said.

Quick added that the NC Values Coalition doesn’t plan on lobbying for or against any upcoming cannabis bills and said he’d be open to studying the issues. The coalition has spoken out against medical marijuana bills introduced in the past.

North Carolina is often included in lists of states that have decriminalized marijuana nationally, though, as Dixon notes, there is a “spectrum” of decriminalization measures passed in different states.

North Carolina passed a decriminalization bill in 1977, lowering the penalties for marijuana possession during a nationwide wave of decriminalization brought on by a rise in adolescent use of cannabis. The trend made lawmakers in many states concerned that young peoples’ futures would be tarnished by a felony charge of marijuana possession. The changes were also seen as a way to relieve prison overcrowding while shifting the focus to harder drugs.

Today, possession of less than .5 ounces carries a maximum fine of $200 and maximum jail sentence of 20 days, although a short probation period is more likely depending on a person’s record. Possession of between .5 ounces and 1.5 ounces is a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to 120 days depending on a defendant’s record. And possession of more than 1.5 ounces is a Class I Felony punishable by up to 21 months, depending on criminal record.

In the absence of legislative action, some district attorney offices and police departments have made the decision to deprioritize arrests and prosecution for marijuana possession cases.

Jim Woodall, the district attorney for Chatham and Orange counties, told the Raleigh News & Observer last year that he has already “more or less” decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in his two counties by not pursuing charges unless it’s a felony amount of over 1.5 ounces.

District Attorney Andrew Womble, whose jurisdiction includes Dare and Currituck counties, did not respond to requests for comment.

Looking ahead, despite the procedural and ideological hurdles, cannabis reform advocates hold some hope that the tide could be turning in North Carolina.

Lentz said the state chapter of NORML is more organized than in the past and is focused on growing its organizational apparatus.

“We don’t have wide enough reach as an organization, so I think there’s a lot of legislators out there that don’t actually hear anyone voicing support, so they are able to continue saying it’s not what their constituents want,” Lentz said. “That’s part of what we’re trying to change by getting a wider reach.”

Lentz also says that action taken to legalize marijuana in surrounding states may ultimately have an impact on North Carolina.

“I see other states making progress,” he said.  “Virginia is making progress, South Carolina sounds like it’s starting to come along, and if we’re surrounded by these other states, I think that will start to…build the public support and…help us kind of [quell] some of these fears that legislators point to.”


  • James

    I don’t like weed’s effects on me very much. However, I work with visitors that come here to the Outer Banks and I rarely ever have problems with people who are high. I do have a lot more problems with people who are drunk.

    Tuesday, Jan 19 @ 9:01 am
  • Dylan

    Legalize it, tax the hell out of it, and use the revenue to fix some of the long standing problems like lack of treatment options for heroin and the opioids

    Tuesday, Jan 19 @ 10:37 am
  • Gerg

    North Carolina has a significant number of people that think the election was fraudulent, Trump is a good guy looking out for their best interest, and that vaccines are somehow evil. They still fly the Virginia battle flag and act like they dont understand how that is historically irrelevant. So… maturity wise, no. NC is not ready. However, marijuana is here to stay regardless of how anyone feels about it. The time has come to really find a way to deal with it in a helpful fashion. I am a veteran with PTSD so I can safely say that it is helpful to people like myself.

    Tuesday, Jan 19 @ 1:46 pm
  • hightider

    Now that all the states are broke – or broker than before covid – they will start legalizing something that a majority have done at some point. Furthermore, too many people, especially minorities are saddled with criminal records for something that is legal in many states. Just legalize across the board for recreation and let consumers decide whether they want it for medical purposes. And as far as the “opioid epidemic”, there has been an “alcohol epidemic” for as long as I can remember.

    Tuesday, Jan 19 @ 2:17 pm
  • Jim Roberts

    I’m a in remission from cancer and I give all the praise to God for healing me from this ordeal. As for making marijuana legal I’m all for it I’d smoked it when I was younger and quit more than 15 years ago and when I was diagnosed with cancer back in 2018one of my doctors told me to smoke some marijuana (pot) it would help with pain because he said that he could write me all the pain pills I wanted but he didn’t want me on that many meds so go buy you a bag of pot and it will help with the pain and keep me hungry (I knew this of course LOL) but joking aside I don’t see no harm in legalizing marijuana it helped me. As for as people saying it’s a gateway to other drugs it’s not marijuana’s fault that people are looking to get higher it’s their fault for choosing a bigger and more deadly drugs. There is always someone that is going to say that it did no it wasn’t its their fault for giving pot a bad name saying it’s a gateway. It really helps with a lot more than cancer.

    Tuesday, Jan 19 @ 3:02 pm
  • Just me

    I am not opposed to medical legalization of medical only. If it will help with cancer etc. But not recreational!

    Tuesday, Jan 19 @ 3:04 pm
  • Thinking About the Future

    Absolutely James – alcohol can make many angry or violent, whereas how many violent “stoned” solely on marijuana people has anyone seen?

    I’ll tell you one thing – legalizing it for medical use would help MANY people, while legalizing it for recreational use would decimate the illegal drug trade’s involvement in the marijuana market. Many parts of NC seem to be ideal for growing hemp and thus the kind of marijuana that has THC.

    Here’s hoping for a more forward thinking NC – including this, solar and wind power.

    Tuesday, Jan 19 @ 5:23 pm
  • Runnerguy

    C’mon Doug, Cannabis doesn’t lead anyone down the road to harder drugs.
    Maybe you are a little fearful of not having a huge budget ?
    If Cannabis was legal you could go to a safe store and buy it.
    Alcohol is far worse and we have a place to buy it on every corner.
    Cannabis is a supplement in some cases and medicinal for many of us.

    Tuesday, Jan 19 @ 6:21 pm
  • Happily Retired

    Anybody remember Bob DeGabrielle, the man who brought us BD&A, Pine Island, Monterey Shores, and Monterey Plaza. That was just a few of his endeavors around these parts. He was responsible for making a lot a people in the construction industry down here a lot of money. Guess what he is doing these days? He has one of the largest marijuana operations in the state of Colorado now and grosses tens of millions of dollars a year from it.

    Wednesday, Jan 20 @ 6:23 am
  • Wombatnc

    Unfortunately, NC’s GOP controlled General Assembly is controlled mostly by a group of backwards thinking “hypocrite Christians”. Voting matters. There are so many uses for medical marijuana usage, from Cancer to Glaucoma to MS to AIDS and beyond. Most politicians, including many democrats, get large campaign contributions from big pharm companies and I’m sure that they’re being pressured to oppose any medical weed legislation.
    As far as recreational use, as stated earlier, it’s pretty harmless. People driving too slow in the left lane looking for Duck Doughnuts or some McDonald’s fries, mismatched clothing, etc. Very little if any violence is associated with it’s use.
    Hum…I can think of some pretty cool local dispensary names:)

    Wednesday, Jan 20 @ 7:52 am
  • Kat

    legalize it!!!!!!

    Wednesday, Jan 20 @ 3:01 pm
  • John Neighbors

    Legalize it and be done with it. The distribution system, as in cigarettes (as toxic as they are) or alcohol, is already in place. You can bet the ABC stores will lobby for exclusive sales rights. Next step is licensed commercial production. Aside from the alleged intensity of greenhouse produced product, there will always be a market for old fashioned field grown. This is where NC has a great advantage, as the metthods and equipment is probably the same as tobacco. So, taxable farm income and employment for field workers. A boon for impoverished eastern NC counties. It’s good to dream of a better future. As far as driving impaired, reaction time tests could address that. Might not be good for some elder drivers though. But we certainly have more serious problems to deal with.

    Wednesday, Jan 20 @ 3:25 pm
  • Proud to live here

    Fully agree with John Neighbors. Well said.

    Wednesday, Jan 20 @ 9:46 pm
  • OBX west coast transplant

    I disagree with recreational MJ… I used to be all for it until my previous hone state legalized it and we saw MANY unintended consequences of that policy… medical use I’m absolutely for, %100… recreational use has caused quite a few problems overall.. I hear the but but alcohol argument, but just because one negative thing is legal we should legalize more? That makes no sense to me. My previous home legalized it and you would think it would calm down illicit sales but that’s just not the reality. By taxing it so much it created a different type of illicit market as the legal stuff priced many Rec users out of the market. Maybe one day but I don’t think Rec is the way to go personally. Decriminalize it for sure and no more jail time for personal possession absolutely.

    Thursday, Jan 21 @ 11:45 am
  • What's the end game?

    I don’t care either way if it’s legal for a number of reasons. However, understand this. Places that have legalized recreational marijuana use have now a real problem getting the medical marijuana they need in various forms. All the dispensaries are going after what sells the most. It also has jacked up the prices greatly for medical marijuana because of the strictness of potency it must meet. What might have been $30-50 a day for medical edibles and now it cost those same patience $300/day for the same thing. They can’t afford the medication! it has hurt those in need for those that just want to have fun.

    Thursday, Jan 21 @ 9:17 pm
  • Dano

    I believe it should be legal every place. I’m sure wombat and others want to fly on a plane with a stoned pilot or get surgery from a stoned doctor. Just be careful for what you wish for.

    Friday, Jan 22 @ 6:32 pm
  • Not How It Works

    Legalizing doesn’t mean it’s just available to use wherever you want. Even legal states have guidelines about when, where, and how much you can have. You can still catch a charge for having it when you’re not supposed to. I understand the concern about having professionals under any kind of influence but if we’re thinking in that direction then we should be worried about it every single day, it’s not like you can’t get marijuana just because it’s illegal here and we all know that. Should we start administering pee tests at every clock in? Legalizing comes with it’s own set of challenges sure as does anything else, but saying it shouldn’t be legalized because people in professional fields might use it on the job is an empty argument because the people who are doing that are probably already doing it anyways.

    Saturday, Jan 23 @ 6:21 pm
  • CommonSense

    Commenting from a place that’s already did this to all those that see it as much to do about nothing be ready for the same problems we now have which is idiots getting stoned, going out for a drive and wiping/killing some innocent person/people.

    It’s amazing how so many here said people that want to get high on weed won’t do that… well they are.

    Sunday, Jan 24 @ 7:53 am
  • Legalize it?

    Legalize it? Look at the other States they legalized it! They only did it for the tax revenue, but because it was a good thing! They then made it so expensive that the illegal growers flourished, hiding amongst the legal ones. Legal pot suffered and the criminal element came back. They also showed that when you allow it in food products that people eat the amount they normally would of that food and then have too much THC. They also have seen a huge increase in ER Visits with children ingesting edibles thinking Chocolate is Chocolate but it’s laced with THC or those Gummy Bears aren’t from the grocery store but the Pot Dispensary. Even if NC makes it legal, it would be illegal to have in the National Park, which means driving down HWY 12 South of Whalebone Junction. Then there is the issue of determining if someone is under the influence or should I say a way that can be done legally. We are a tourist location, do we need people who will now be both drunk and stoned driving around, going to the beach, surfing, fishing, getting stoned and falling asleep in the sun? Pot for medical purposes is fine, not recreational.

    Sunday, Jan 24 @ 10:50 pm