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Is North Carolina Ready to Take Marijuana Reform Seriously? 

The will to decriminalize

click to enlarge In 2010, North Carolina spent $55 million on marijuana enforcement.
  • In 2010, North Carolina spent $55 million on marijuana enforcement.

Since taking his oath of office in 2009, N.C. Rep. Kelly Alexander, Jr. has filed a marijuana-related bill in the North Carolina General Assembly six times — and six times those bills have languished in committee, failing to make it to the House floor for a debate, much less a vote.

That count includes Alexander's most recent bill, House Bill 994, bluntly titled "Reform Marijuana Laws," filed on May 23 during the General Assembly's short session.

If enacted, which is highly unlikely, the bill would radically change the state's marijuana laws, allowing citizens to legally possess up to four ounces, therefore taking power away from police officers to stop and search those they suspect of possessing the drug. If made law, the bill would also enable citizens previously convicted on possession of up to four ounces to pay a fee and expunge their record of the offense.

Additionally, marijuana would no longer be deemed a controlled substance in North Carolina.

click to enlarge Corey Hedgepeth
  • Corey Hedgepeth

"It's a wonderful bill," said Corey Hedgepeth, executive director of the Charlotte chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. "It puts a halt to the ability of law enforcement to use cannabis to search a car or even to stop an individual suspected of possessing marijuana." This is important, Hedgepeth said, because "going to jail over small amounts ruins lives."

Under the state's current law, possession of half an ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $200; possession of half an ounce to one and a half ounces is also a misdemeanor that could lead to up to 45 days in jail and up to a $1,000 fine; possession of one and a half ounces to 10 pounds of weed is a felony for which the penalty is three to eight months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

"[Decriminalization is] just a no-brainer at this point," Hedgepeth said. In his estimation, if politicians dropped their antiquated "reefer madness" stance and looked at the numbers, he thinks that they, too, would see the issue as he does.

For example, in 2017, Forbes reported, "if all states had legalized medical marijuana in 2014, the national savings for fee-for-service Medicaid would have been approximately $1.01 billion. This works out to an average per state savings of $19.825 million a year."

Here's another figure: $55 million. That represents North Carolina's 2010 fiscal cost for marijuana enforcement. The figure includes more than $29 million for law enforcement, more than $17.5 million in judicial and legal expenses and more than $8 million for incarceration expenses, according to a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report titled "The War on Marijuana in Black and White."

It's important to note that funds for local law enforcement come from local property taxes, not Raleigh. Presently before the Charlotte City Council is a budget that includes a property tax increase that would allow the city to raise pay for Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers by 6.5 percent. (The Fraternal Order of Police requested a 15 percent increase.) The council is expected to vote on the budget on June 11.

click to enlarge N.C. Rep. Kelly Alexander.
  • N.C. Rep. Kelly Alexander.

For Alexander, whose district covers parts of north Charlotte, HB 994 is as much about economics as it is about social justice. "Under the existing statute a police officer has discretion," he said, "and my bill eliminates discretion. So, if you're stopped and you have 3.5 ounces, under my bill you would not receive a fine, you would not receive a citation. It would be, 'Thank you very much. Go on, sir.'"

At present, said Lt. Brad Koch, a spokesperson for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, "There are a multitude of ways an officer might develop a reasonable suspicion, including smelling marijuana, seeing marijuana or if a confidential informant tells the officer that the citizen has marijuana on them." That "reasonable suspicion," also known as "probable cause," can allow police to search a person and their property.

This becomes a problem when acting on the suspicion leads to unnecessary escalation, as was made evident in the 2016 fatal Keith Lamont Scott police shooting. It was, after all, marijuana that first drew the officers' attention to Scott, according to CMPD's official version of events.

Scott isn't the only example. In 2010, in Las Vegas, Trevon Cole was killed by police during a drug raid at which no weapons were found. In 2012, police officers killed Ramarley Graham in New York as he attempted to flush pot down the toilet. In 2015, Zachary Hammond was fatally shot by police in Seneca, South Carolina, during an attempted marijuana bust.

"Personally, I think Keith Scott would still be alive now were he smoking a (tobacco) cigarette," said Keith Caughran, a long-time member of Charlotte NORML. "It's really the only crime you can smell." Caughran said he's tried to obtain detailed and current information about marijuana arrests from CMPD, with no luck.

According to the ACLU, there were 784,021 marijuana arrests made nationally in 2010. Half a million of those arrests were made in 12 states. North Carolina is 10th on that list with 20,983 arrests. That same year, while black people made up 22 percent of the state's population, they accounted for 50 percent of the marijuana possession arrests, even though, as the ACLU pointed out, blacks and whites are equally likely to be holding.

"Marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and Whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession," according to the ACLU report. That was the national rate, but in Mecklenburg County, according to the same report, black people were 4.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession that year. Further, the report states, law enforcement "has failed to diminish the use or availability of marijuana."

Enter Dr. Frank Baumgartner, a University of North Carolina political science professor. In a video posted by CMPD on its CMPDvidcast YouTube channel on March 18, Baumgartner explained that in 1999 North Carolina became the first state to mandate the collection of traffic stop data, first by state troopers then by most local police departments.

"No one ever analyzed it," Baumgartner said. "The law actually mandates that the attorney general give periodic reports, but no report had been given."

Gov. Roy Cooper was North Carolina's attorney general for most of that time frame, from 2001 until he was sworn in as governor last year.

Baumgartner, whose book Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race is due out this month, said his analysis of the data "pretty much validated the concerns that motivated the legislation. African-American and Hispanic drivers are significantly more likely to be pulled over; about twice as likely compared to white drivers. And when they are pulled over, they are twice as likely — statewide — to be searched."

In Charlotte, Bumgartner said, the odds of a search during a traffic stop are 20 percent. That's compared to 3 percent statewide.

Driving an older-model car, being a person of color and being a young man all increase a person's odds of being searched during a traffic stop, said Baumgartner. "Young black men get searched at a very high rate," he said, adding later, "When you get pulled over for an expired tag your odds of a search are much higher."

Dr. Gene Trobini, a CMPD analyst who's also featured in the video, doesn't dispute Baumgartner's findings. He stated that 63 percent of the time, African Americans are pulled over for regulatory offenses such as driving with an expired tag or having a busted tail light.

"Police officers have an amazing amount of discretion, and their behaviors are really disparate from officer to officer," Baumgartner said. He stated that if police focused on stopping drivers for safety violations — such as running a red light or speeding — then he would expect the disparity in property search numbers to drop by 50 percent.

According to a data summary that Baumgartner shared with Creative Loafing, "Blacks constitute 62 percent of the marijuana charges and 51 percent of resisting a public officer charges when there are no other charges filed. In the largest cities, their rate of arrest for such charges is many times greater than that of whites."

Marijuana was first federally regulated in 1937, via the Marijuana Tax Act. Even then, there was strong opposition.

In reaction to the law, the American Medical Association wrote, in part, "There is no evidence, however, that the medicinal use of these drugs has caused or is causing cannabis addiction ... and the obvious purpose and effect of this bill is to impose so many restrictions on their use as to prevent such use altogether. Since the medicinal use of cannabis has not caused and is not causing addiction, the prevention of the use of the drug for medicinal purposes can accomplish no good end whatsoever."

In 1952, another federal law, the Boggs Act, added stiff penalties for criminal offenses involving several drugs, including marijuana.

In 1970, the federal government enacted the Controlled Substances Act, which still lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug alongside heroin, a highly addictive drug currently blamed for an ongoing epidemic of death-by-overdose. Schedule I drugs are supposedly drugs that do not have medical uses but do have a high potential for abuse. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has not reported any deaths from marijuana overdose — ever.

"Part of Richard Nixon's war on drugs, the Controlled Substances Act placed cannabis into Schedule 1, along with heroin and LSD, more due to Nixon's animus toward the counterculture with which he associated marijuana than scientific, medical, or legal opinion," Time magazine reported in a 2016 article titled "A Brief History of Marijuana Law in America."

"Indeed," the article continued, "in 1972 the Shafer Commission, an investigative body appointed by Nixon, recommended that marijuana be decriminalized and thus removed from Schedule 1. Nixon vehemently rejected the Commission's report."

click to enlarge Alexander (left) and Hedgepeth stood together two days before Alexander filed House Bill 994.
  • Alexander (left) and Hedgepeth stood together two days before Alexander filed House Bill 994.

The N.C. General Assembly's Judiciary I Committee — where HB 994 is currently stuck — has released the schedule for its regular Wednesday afternoon meeting on June 4, and as of CL's press deadline, marijuana reform was not on the agenda.

That committee is comprised of 13 members: nine are white males, four are white females and one is a black female. The committee is headed by N.C. Rep. Ted Davis of Wilmington. To see movement on HB 994 in this session, Alexander said, constituents need to reach out to Davis to get the bill on the committee's agenda.

"You've got to reach out to them, you've got to express to them that you want it to get a good hearing," Alexander said*. "If you are in a position where you would like to bring testimony in front of the committee, tell them. Ask [that it] be put on the schedule.

"The citizens themselves have got to demonstrate to the members of the committee that the old stereotypical responses — the old Nancy Reagan 'Just Say No' legislation — that we need to get beyond that and consider the merits of the legislation," he said.

Alexander pointed out that perhaps the most progressive part of his bill involves the retroactive expungement of past charges, which would allow anyone previously convicted of possession of four ounces or less to return to the county where they were charged, fill out a form, pay a filing fee and have that conviction automatically expunged.

"It wouldn't be a question of a hearing and all that; it would be a matter of if you meet these basic criteria and you do this basic thing, that part of your record's gone," he said.

Even though HB 994 has a slim chance of making it through the General Assembly this summer, advocates for marijuana reform are looking toward the future. Alexander already views his underdog bill in the context of future legalization.

"In California, they discovered that there were a lot of people that had these kind of convictions on their records who want to now get involved with the legal cannabis business, and until California changed their law they could not."

Hedgepeth was also eager to discuss the broader fight for legalization in North Carolina, a topic that CL's new monthly Carolina Cannabis Now column will follow closely, in addition to issues surrounding medicinal use of cannabis, use of hemp and cannabinoid oils, and the economics of cannabis.

Hedgepeth emphasized the potential job creation and revenues that legalization could bring to the state, pointing out that North Carolina ranked 17 in the 2017 federal poverty report.

"There are things that we're not taking care of when it comes to poverty," Hedgepeth said. "But if you introduce the cannabis industry, now you have small business entrepreneurship that is able to be incorporated in some of those poor, rural areas. You create jobs, you create taxpayers and people are able to do something more to get themselves out of poverty."

Asked if he will introduce another marijuana bill in the General Assembly's long session, which begins in January, should HB 994 fail, Alexander quickly confirmed that he would:

"Yes. I believe that elected officials ignore this groundswell at their peril."

(This story introduces Creative Loafing's new monthly column Carolina Cannabis Now, in which reporter Rhiannon Fionn will report on all things cannabis in the state, from evolving public and professional opinions on medicinal uses of marijuana, to the cultivation and sales of hemp and cannabinoid oils, to issues surrounding the economics of cannabis and evolving policy on cannabis production and sales. For the best information on North Carolina's changing attitudes about marijuana, hemp and other cannabis derivatives, stay tuned to Carolina Cannabis Now. The column debuts June 28. )

[*An original version of this story mistakenly attributed this quote to Rep. Ted Davis. The quote came from Rep. Kelly Alexander.]
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