North Carolina’s two top Democratic state officials are urging the Republican-led legislature to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in light of President Joe Biden’s pardon Thursday of thousands of Americans convicted of “simple possession” under federal law.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, the state’s top lawyer who is considering a run for governor in 2024, shared their support for the president’s decision at a Friday task force meeting on racial equity and criminal justice.
Established by Cooper in June 2020 after George Floyd’s murder, the 24-member panel of law enforcement officers, attorneys, civil rights advocates and state officials had recommended in a 2020 report that state lawmakers replace the misdemeanor charge for possessing up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana with a civil offense on par with a traffic infraction.
The General Assembly did not act on this recommendation.
"Conviction of simple possession can mar people's records for life and maybe even prevent them from getting a job," Cooper told the task force Friday. “The General Assembly didn’t pass your recommendations on this last session, but I believe they should. North Carolina should take steps to end this stigma.”
Acknowledging that drug charging practices disproportionately impact people of color, Biden called on governors Thursday to issue similar pardons for those convicted of state marijuana offenses, which reflect the vast majority of possession cases. Although no one is currently in federal prison solely for “simple possession” of the drug, according to the White House, Biden said the pardon could help thousands overcome obstacles to renting a home or finding work. His pardon excludes those convicted of possessing marijuana with intent to distribute.
Cooper, who is term-limited and cannot seek reelection in 2024, said he has asked lawyers to examine state law and determine whether North Carolina can and should take further action to pardon these convictions. The clemency provision of the state constitution grants the governor near-absolute pardoning power.
While federal law still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug, 19 states and the District of Columbia have legalized its recreational use, and 37 states and the District of Columbia have legalized its medical use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. North Carolina, however, has been slow to follow suit.
The Republican-led state Senate passed a bill earlier this year with strong bipartisan support that would have legalized marijuana for medical use with a physician’s prescription if purchased through dozens of tightly regulated dispensaries.
But the bill idled in the House, where many Republicans held reservations about legalizing cannabis in any form. Opponents of the bill warned the health benefits remain uncertain and may not outweigh the health risks.
House Speaker Tim Moore said in June that the chamber would wait until 2023 to reconsider legalizing medical marijuana.
Current state law makes possession of more than 0.5 ounces punishable by up to 45 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines, without exemptions for medical use. Possession of more than 1.5 ounces is classified as a felony.
"People should not have a federal criminal record for something that is legal in an increasing number of states," Stein said Thursday. “Let’s act, and let’s get it right. That means decriminalizing adult use, expunging past convictions for simple possession, and including strong protections for kids, no advertising, state controlled sales and putting N.C. farmers first.”
Although Black and white North Carolina residents use marijuana at approximately the same rate, the task force found that people of color make up a disproportionate percentage of those convicted of simple possession, paralleling nationwide concerns of racial bias. Roughly 60% percent of North Carolinians convicted for possessing up to half an ounce of marijuana in 2019 were non-white, according to the most recent report.