On the eve of 4/20, marijuana criminal charges are declining in NC

Possessing marijuana remains illegal in North Carolina, except on Cherokee tribal land.

But that won’t prevent people here from celebrating “420,” the not-legal pot holiday that falls on Saturday, April 20, this year.

So what are the chances of 420 participants — or anyone else at any other time — getting arrested for possessing, selling or distributing marijuana in the state?

Maybe much lower than ever.

State law enforcement agencies issued almost 18,000 felony and misdemeanor marijuana related charges in fiscal year 2023, according to an analysis of state court data from the NC Administrative Office of the Courts for fiscal years 2013 to 2023 of cases filed in district courts.

That’s at least a 10-year low — 63% lower than a peak in 2018 when about 49,000 were issued.

NC marijuana charges by the numbers

Further analysis of the data shows:

  • The most common marijuana charge — possession of up to a half ounce, a misdemeanor — reached a 10-year low of just under 5,000 charges in 2023, a 76% decline from the 2014 peak of 20,800 charges.

  • The misdemeanor charge of possessing marijuana paraphernalia reached a 10-year low too, with almost 7,600 charges in 2023, dropping 69% from about 24,000 charges in 2018.

  • Officials issued almost 1,800 felony charges in 2023 for possession of marijuana with intent to sell or deliver, down 63% from 2013 when about 4,800 charges were filed.

  • Felony possession charges also declined but at a smaller rate. In 2023, there were 668 charges, down 28% from 2019 with 926 charges. However, the 2023 figure is 12% more than 10 years ago when 596 charges were made.

  • Among the top five most populous North Carolina counties, all had significant declines in felony and misdemeanor marijuana charges from 2013 to 2023: Wake reported 44% fewer charges; Mecklenburg, 73%; Guilford, 70%; Forsyth, 29%; and Cumberland, 53%.

  • Almost two-thirds of misdemeanor charges are dismissed, according to a News & Observer analysis of court data from 2017 to 2021. Only 18% were found found guilty as charged.

Racial disparities in marijuana arrests?

The data do not provide demographics such as race/ethnicity, age or gender. But the 2020 North Carolina Task Force For Racial Equity in Criminal Justice noted racial disparities in marijuana arrests. It recommended decriminalizing marijuana possession in small amounts and further study of legalizing marijuana possession. A 2023 report made similar recommendations.

Unavailability of detailed court data from the state of Administration of Courts makes it impossible for The News & Observer to independently assess if the disparity still exists.

NC follows national trends

Nationally, there’s a similar pattern of declining marijuana-related criminal charges and convictions.

The number of federal offenders sentenced for simple possession of marijuana has declined steadily from more than 2,000 in fiscal year 2014 to 145 in fiscal year 2021, according to a 2023 report from the United States Sentencing Commission.

Marijuana is now legal for recreational use in 24 states and the District of Columbia, according to the latest data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another 15 states have a comprehensive medical marijuana program.

A Pew Research survey released March 26 of 5,140 Americans found that almost 9 in 10 think that marijuana should be legal for either medical use or medical and recreational use, with approval varying depending on race/ethnicity, age and political affiliation. For example, 94% of those who identify as Democrats said marijuana should be legal medically and/or recreationally, compared to 82% of Republicans.

A time of change in North Carolina?

Possessing, selling or smoking of marijuana remains illegal.

However, following the federal authorization of hemp production and consumption nationwide in 2018, North Carolina law allows for the sale of any cannabis product sourced from hemp that has less than a 0.3% delta-9 THC concentration.

These products, typically sold as lotions, capsules and oils, contain the CBD (cannabidiol) compound found in marijuana but do not produce a high.

Last year, the state Senate passed the “Compassionate Care Act,” which would have allowed medical uses of marijuana for people with certain health conditions. The bill did not pass the House.

But the legislature is scheduled to convene for this year’s short session April 24. And marijuana legalization may again be on its agenda, The News & Observer has reported.

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