Lawmakers want to reduce marijuana penalties | The Enterprise
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Lawmakers want to reduce marijuana penalties

Posted on March 27, 2021

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lkay@springhopeenterprise.com | 252-265-8117

Gailliard

Gailliard

Cooper-Suggs

Cooper-Suggs

Gailliard

Gailliard

Cooper-Suggs

Cooper-Suggs

Two local lawmakers have signed onto a bill to reduce the punishment for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

State Rep. Linda Cooper-Suggs, D-Wilson, and Rep. James Gailliard, D-Nash, say their decision to support the legislation is about freeing up court officials and promoting equity in arrests and prosecution for marijuana use.

“I’m not in favor of drug use by anyone,” Cooper-Suggs said. “This is about state resources.”

Cooper-Suggs said if the legislation becomes law, court officials like public defenders and probation officers could turn their attention to higher priorities.

“This is about taking down misdemeanors to infractions,” Cooper-Suggs said.

Cooper-Suggs and Gailliard are cosponsors of Rep. Kelly Alexander’s House Bill 290, titled Make Certain Drug Offenses Infractions.

Alexander, of Mecklenburg County, and the other 27 House members who signed onto the bill are all Democrats.

The bill calls for possession of up to 1 ½ ounces of marijuana to be an infraction instead of a Class 3 misdemeanor. Under the proposed law, it would be a felony to possess more than 1 ½ ounces of marijuana; more than three-twentieths of an ounce of marijuana resin, commonly known as hash; or any amount of synthetic marijuana.

If enacted, the change would be effective Dec. 1.

HB 290 passed its first reading on March 15 and has been referred to the House Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations.

“I see this as an equity issue,” Gailliard said. “Black and white Americans have comparable marijuana usage rates, yet people of color are much more likely to be charged and convicted for possession.”

The change from misdemeanors to infractions is also an economic issue as courts get clogged with such cases, Gailliard said.

In 2019, more than 31,000 people were charged with possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana and 30,000 people were charged with possession of marijuana paraphernalia, according to Jessica Smith, a professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“These individuals are more a danger to themselves than to society, so we can address this with civil fines and not as a crime,” Gailliard said. “This would eliminate the racial disparity and improve how we allocate our court resources.”

Gailliard is the pastor of Word Tabernacle Church in Rocky Mount. He said he doesn’t see any conflict between the bill and biblical principles.

“From the pastor perspective, ultimately salvation is a matter of justice,” Gailliard said. “I don’t see any conflict with advocating for justice in our legislation, nor with giving people a chance to fully recover from their mistakes and problems.”

North Carolina’s National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws chapter supports the decriminalization bill.

Current civil offense possession of marijuana should be increased to 1 ½ ounces, and prior charges and convictions should be expunged through an automatic process, said NORML political consultant Janis Ramquist.

“The legislation should be guided by a public safety, public health and racial equity framework,” Ramquist said. “Especially since impairment is based on inaccurate tests.”

Blood and urine tests are inaccurate in determining marijuana impairment, according to the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration.

Detection of total THC metabolites in urine is well past the intoxication and impairment window of one to three hours. THC can linger in the body for five weeks without impairment, according to information from the NHTSA shared by Ramquist.

“Only 14 states maintain medical cannabis prohibition. It’s time that North Carolina ends prohibition, especially since the arrests of North Carolinians are based on flawed chemical tests,” said Zac Lentz, board chairman of N.C. NORML. “Cannabis has a lower addiction rate than alcohol and tobacco. Regardless of the fact that the rate of cannabis use is about the same, almost four times as many Black citizens are arrested as white. Prosecutors should immediately deprioritize marijuana-related prosecution.”

How should North Carolina address marijuana possession?
Decriminalize; make it an infraction
Legalize; impose no penalties
Marijuana should remain illegal
Increase criminal penalties
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