The governor of North Carolina has come out in support of ending cannabis criminalization in the state, and signaled that he has already started looking at relief options for those with marijuana-related convictions.

Gov. Roy Cooper (D) convened a criminal justice task force in 2020 to look into potential reforms of North Carolina’s cannabis laws. Last year, it recommended marijuana decriminalization but the governor had not officially endorsed the policy until the most recent meeting of the task force when he said it was time to “end the stigma” and decriminalize cannabis.

Cooper’s statement was prompted in part by President Joe Biden’s decision to issue pardons to those with federal cannabis possession offenses, which was accompanied by a call for governors to do likewise at the state-level.

“This task force has already met this issue head-on by recommending…that simple possession of a small amount of marijuana should not be a crime,” Cooper said. “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 noted that North Carolina’s legislature had decided not to act on the task force’s decriminalization recommendation, but urged them to reconsider.

He went on to state that he has asked his administration’s lawyers to review North Carolina’s marijuana possession laws to assess whether it is possible to provide relief for such convictions. Governors from across the US have reacted to Biden’s call in various ways, and Cooper’s response is perhaps the most robust in terms of pursuing state-level pardons.

North Carolina’s state Attorney General Josh Stein (D) chaired the criminal justice task force, which also had a mandate to report on the possibility of legalizing adult-use marijuana sales. Stein has expressed support for cannabis decriminalization in the past and he reiterated this in response to Biden’s announcement, arguing that “people should not have a federal criminal record for something that is legal in an increasing number of states.”

“Let’s act—and let’s get it right,” he added. “That means decriminalizing adult use, expunging past convictions for simple possession, and including strong protections for kids, no advertising, state controlled sales, and putting NC farmers first.”

While there has been little legislative action on marijuana decriminalization in North Carolina, in June a Senate committee approved a bill that would legalize medical cannabis but it later stalled in the House due to Republican opposition.

This is in spite of the fact that a poll from May shows that 82 percent of North Carolina voters support medical cannabis legalization, which includes 75 percent of Republicans. As for full marijuana legalization, 60 percent of respondents backed such a move.

Under North Carolina’s current cannabis laws, possession between half an ounce and 1.5 ounces is considered a class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 45 days in jail and a $200 fine. Criminal records from 2019 reveal that there were 1,909 convictions for this offense that year, and 70 percent of those convicted were nonwhite.

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