Two decades ago, it would have been nearly unthinkable for any state to successfully legalize a long-criminalized drug like marijuana. But in the intervening 20 years, we’ve all witnessed a major shift in public opinion and laws regarding the acceptability of the drug. As of today, 36 states have legalized marijuana for medical use, and a handful have gone so far as to legalize recreational use as well. North Carolina is now among the minority of holdout states that have taken almost no significant action to legalize marijuana.

Given the trend line nationally, one would think that our state might soon legalize pot. But according to a recent opinion piece, that isn’t likely to happen for one significant reason. Unlike other states, North Carolina does not allow citizen-led ballot initiatives, so any decisions about legalizing marijuana are left to our typically conservative legislature.

Pockets of progress, but not reform

When it comes to possession charges, prosecutors have wide discretion, and many are starting to exercise leniency. For instance, the lead prosecutor in Chatham and Orange counties recently noted that his office usually doesn’t pursue marijuana possession charges except in cases where someone was caught with more than 1.5 ounces, which is the threshold for felony charges. In this way, small-time possession has essentially been “decriminalized” (not explicitly legal, but not strictly punished, either).

While these policy decisions are a gesture of good will, they are not real reform. Our laws need to be predictable and uniformly enforced. Whether or not someone faces criminal charges should not be determined by how kind their assigned prosecutor happens to be.

Discussing why drug laws can be so detrimental

Marijuana is the focus of drug-law reform because it is so widely used and, compared to other drugs, relatively safe. The arguments for reforming marijuana and other drug laws go beyond the immediate consequences of a criminal charge. Those convicted of a drug crime – even a minor one – can be haunted by the conviction on their record for decades after their sentence has been served. A conviction can make it harder to find a job, qualify for good housing or get into college.

Moreover, statistical evidence shows that drug laws are unevenly enforced by race. In 2019, there were about 40,000 criminal charges filed related to marijuana possession in North Carolina. About two-thirds of those charged were minorities. This is despite two important facts. First, less than one-third of North Carolinians are minorities. Second, marijuana is used at equal rates among white and minority populations.

A good lawyer is crucial

If you or a loved one has been charged with possession of marijuana or any other drug, you can’t afford to rely on the good will of prosecutors. Instead, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who will aggressively protect your rights and fight for your freedom.