Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper told members of the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice that his lawyers were looking at convictions for simple marijuana possession to determine whether there’s anything the executive branch can do — like issue a pardon — to follow the president’s lead and help people convicted of low-level marijuana possession move on with their lives.
Cooper did not provide any data that morning. But figures presented to a working group of the task force in November 2020 offer a glimpse as to how many, and who, might benefit from pardons.
The crime is a federal misdemeanor. A person can be charged with simple possession if they have up to four ounces on them, resulting in a fine of at least $1,000 and could include prison time, although no one is currently serving time in federal prison solely for marijuana possession.
Biden’s pardon applies only to people convicted of the federal crimes. It does nothing for those convicted for marijuana possession under state laws.
In North Carolina in 2019, there were 31,287 charges of possession of up to half an ounce of marijuana, the lowest-level misdemeanor in the state that could result in a fine of up to $200 but no jail time. Of those, 31,000 charges, 8,520 resulted in convictions. More than 60% of those convicted of the crime were not white.
That same year, there were 3,422 charges for possession of more than a half-ounce but less than 1.5 ounces of marijuana, punishable by up to 45 days imprisonment and a $200 fine. Of those, 1,909 cases resulted in convictions; 70% of those convicted were not white.
Almost 2,500 people were charged in 2019 with possession of more than 1.5 ounces but less than 10 pounds of marijuana, a class I felony, punishable by up to eight months in prison and a $1,000 fine. Of the 2,457 charges, 338 resulted in a conviction, two-thirds of whom were not white.
In their report issued a month later, the task force recommended legislators decriminalize marijuana possession of up to 1.5 ounces. Legislators did not act on this recommendation.
Cooper said he supported decriminalization last week when he told task force members he was extending their work into 2024.
“Law enforcement and the criminal justice system are under-resourced right now, and they should be focused on stopping violent crime, drug trafficking and other threats to safe communities,” Cooper said. “We also know that a conviction of simple possession can mar people’s records for life, and maybe even prevent them from getting a job.”