A racial justice task force recommended that North Carolina decriminalize marijuana possession. No more penalties for recreational use of pot?
A racial justice task force recommended that North Carolina decriminalize marijuana possession.

A racial justice task force reporting to Gov. Roy Cooper recommended North Carolina do away with criminal penalties, citing how Black and Latino residents are disproportionately convicted.

The time has come for North Carolina to decriminalize marijuana use, a task force headed by the state’s top prosecutor and a state Supreme Court justice recommended this week.   

Black and Latino residents make up the bulk of low-level marijuana prosecutions, according to recommendations released this week by the NC Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. That’s despite white North Carolinians making up 70% of the state’s overall population.

Gov. Roy Cooper convened the task force this summer to study and suggest actionable ways to dismantle racism within the state’s police forces and court systems.

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NC Attorney General Josh Stein, who co-chairs the task force with NC Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls, said that decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana possession could help the state address the racial inequities existing throughout the judicial system.  

“You cannot talk about improving racial equity in our criminal justice system without talking about marijuana,” Stein said, in a news release. “White and Black North Carolinians use marijuana at similar rates, yet Black people are disproportionately arrested and sentenced.”

In 2019, for example, 61%of the 8,520 people in NC convicted of misdemeanor charges of possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana were nonwhite. And nonwhite people made up 70% of those convicted of a slightly more serious misdemeanor charge of having a half-ounce to 1.5 ounces of marijuana, according to data provided by the racial equity task force.

Pot Legalization, Decriminalization in Other Spots

States across the nation are quickly moving to dismantle laws that penalize those who use or grow marijuana.  Voters in Mississippi and South Dakota became the latest to endorse medical marijuana legalization through referendums, bringing the total to 36 states who allow for it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

And North Carolina’s neighboring state of Virginia appears ready to go forward and is poised to pass its own marijuana legalization laws, a move that would make it the first state in the South to do so.

That state’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, said it could be an important way to bring in tax revenue and that he is ready to work with the legislature to pass a legalization bill in 2021.

“We are going to move forward with the legalization of marijuana in Virginia,” Northam said, according to the Hill. “I support this, and I’m committed to doing it the right way,” Northam said during a news briefing.

But the path to legalization will likely not be as smooth for North Carolina. There would be major hurdles, namely the Republican-led state legislature which retained its majority in the 2020 election and has not given much support to the idea in the past.

Voters tend to be more supportive of these efforts, and a poll conducted this September found 73% of North Carolinians in favor of legalizing medical marijuana.

But to get an initiative like marijuana decriminalization or legalization on the ballot in North Carolina, the state legislature needs to sign off, as the News & Observer reported earlier this month.