A task force commissioned by the governor of North Carolina recommended marijuana decriminalization and the establishment of a separate task force to study the potential benefits and drawbacks of cannabis legalization in the state.

The Racial Equity in Criminal Justice task force was convened by Gov. Roy Cooper with a broad mandate to investigate racial disparities in law enforcement. Members of the task force included Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls, who served as co-chair, the mayor of Fayetteville, the police chiefs of Durham and Apex, the sheriffs of Brunswick and Richmond Counties and representatives from the ACLU and NAACP, with input on the question of marijuana policy from the North Carolina chapter of NORML.

Of the task force’s resulting 125 recommendations, three concern cannabis policy. In its report, the task force notes that in 2019 70 percent of those convicted in North Carolina for possessing between half an ounce and 1.5 ounces of marijuana were people of color, even though they only make up around 30 percent of the population.

Under North Carolina’s marijuana laws, possession of up to half an ounce is a misdemeanor with no possibility of jail time. Possession of between half an ounce and 1.5 ounces is also a misdemeanor but carries a minimum one-day jail sentence with a maximum of 45 days behind bars. Possession of more than 1.5 ounces is considered a felony offense with prison sentences of between three and eight months.

Gov. Cooper’s racial equity task force recommended decriminalizing possession of up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis and expunging the criminal records of those who have been criminally convicted of possessing such an amount. It also calls for law enforcement as well as state and local agencies to adopt a policy of “deprioritization” with regards to marijuana-related infractions, along a similar line to that taken in Texas. The task force’s final recommendation pertaining to cannabis policy is to “Convene a task force of stakeholders to study the pros and cons and options for legalization of possession, cultivation and/or sale of marijuana.”

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein agreed with the task force’s findings, noting the stark racial disparities seen in the enforcement of the state’s cannabis laws.

“White and Black North Carolinians use marijuana at similar rates, yet Black people are disproportionately arrested and sentenced,” Stein said. “Additionally, it is time for North Carolina to start having real conversations about a safe, measured, public health approach to potentially legalizing marijuana.”

Katrina Ramquist, executive director of NORML North Carolina, is optimistic that lawmakers will act on the task force’s recommendations and make cannabis decriminalization a priority this year.

“We’re pleased this task force is giving this attention,” Ramquist said. “This is something we believe the legislature will act on.”

Unlike most other states, North Carolina doesn’t allow citizens to initiate ballot measures for voters to approve, as happened on Election Day in Republican leaning states like South Dakota and Montana. For Ramquist, this means lobbying efforts will be crucial to bringing about cannabis reform in North Carolina.

“The [marijuana reform] constituency hasn’t been organized in North Carolina for a long time,” she said. “I think that’s going to be the key to change.”