North Carolina’s attorney general says it is time for his state to do what is right and decriminalize marijuana.

Josh Stein said Wednesday that the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice has offered up a host of reforms that include decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana possession—a recommendation that Stein heartily endorsed.

“You cannot talk about improving racial equity in our criminal justice system without talking about marijuana,” said Stein, a Democrat who is just winding down his first term as attorney general and who was re-elected earlier this month. “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.”

Stein’s press release noted that, under current North Carolina law, “possession of up to ½ ounce of marijuana is a class 3 misdemeanor, not subject to imprisonment but subject to a fine up to $200,” and that last year “there were 31,287 charges and 8,520 convictions for this offense; 61 percent of those convicted were nonwhite.” The task force recommended “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.”

Racial Justice and Cannabis Law

The task force was established through an executive order by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Republican, in June. Under the guidance of Stein and North Carolina Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls, “the task force will convene a wide range of stakeholders including: advocates, elected officials, state and local law enforcement agencies, justice-involved individuals, representatives of the judicial branch and more,” the governor’s office said in an announcement at the time. The task force was charged with a mandate to develop policies aimed at remedying racial bias in the criminal justice system by December 1. Due to problems imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the deadline was extended to December 15, which is when the task force will deliver its full recommendations to Cooper. 

Earls said that the task force was shown data revealing that “63 percent of the more than 10,000 convictions for simple possession of marijuana last year in North Carolina are people of color even though they are only 30 percent of the population and research documents that marijuana use is at roughly equal percentages among Black and white populations.”

“This recommendation is intended to help alleviate racial disparities in North Carolina’s criminal justice system,” Earls said.

Stein’s office said the task force has recommended “to further study potential legalization of marijuana possession, cultivation, and sale” in North Carolina. Four states—Arizona, South Dakota, Montana and New Jersey—voted to legalize recreational marijuana use in this month’s election.

The task force also recommended that prosecutors “immediately deprioritize marijuana-related prosecution in non-ABC permitted locations. Other recommendations from the task force include: “[r]equiring 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”; “deemphasize (or make the lowest drug law enforcement priority) felony drug possession arrests for trace quantities under .25 grams in non-ABC permitted locations”; and “deemphasize (or make the lowest drug law enforcement priority) marijuana possession arrests in non-ABC permitted locations.”

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