By Hunter Hines
Christian Action League
November 19, 2020
The “Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice,” a government group established by Governor Roy Cooper in response to Black Lives Matter protests, is preparing to present a proposal for decriminalizing marijuana in the Tar Heel state. According to various media sources, Attorney General Josh Stein, who leads the task force, says he also supports decriminalization.
Both Cooper and Stein were re-elected to office earlier this month. Cooper, a Democrat, prevailed over the Republican challenger, Dan Forest with 51.52% of the vote. Stein, also a Democrat, barely overcame Republican Jim O’Neill by 50.13%, which was slightly less than a 14,000 vote spread between the two.
Decriminalizing marijuana is different than legalization. Legalization allows for the general sale and purchasing of cannabis, similar to tobacco and alcohol. Decriminalization only removes the criminal sanctions against it. Marijuana would continue to be illegal, but the legal system would no longer prosecute for possession under a specified amount. Instead, penalties such as a fine or attending a drug education class or drug treatment center would likely be required.
Supporters argue the criminalization of marijuana disproportionally impacts minorities. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union argue:
“Marijuana has been a key driver of mass criminalization in this country, and hundreds of thousands of people, the majority of whom are Black or Latinx, have their lives impacted by a marijuana arrest each year.”
“That includes North Carolina,” says the Raleigh News and Observer (N&O), “where minorities make up less than one-third of the population but two-thirds of the nearly 40,000 criminal charges for marijuana possession in 2019.”
Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham), who serves on the Governor’s task force and is a former judge, told the N&O, “We’re looking at the racial inequities that are so tremendous. We need to fix that and look at records and how to give second chances and expunge.”
Legalizing marijuana in some form has been introduced in the state legislature since 2008. But the proposals were either never taken-up or failed to pass out of committee.
“I’m thankful for the way the Republicans in the General Assembly have resisted the pressures,” said Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “Thus far, the Republican-dominated legislature has been wise in dealing with the question. However, in politics, I’m always concerned about the way matters can quickly turn on a dime. That’s why I think it’s important for pastors to inform their congregants about this possibility and begin encouraging them to contact their lawmakers in opposition. There’s no question legislation to decriminalize will be introduced in 2021, and have full backing of the Governor and the Attorney General.”
Creech added that he believes the arguments for decriminalization neglect critical considerations.
“When you decriminalize, despite all arguments to the contrary, you are implying to young people, that pot isn’t really dangerous. But it is! The science documenting the harms is very clear. There are no scientific or medical studies showing weed is safe or harmless. I will grant that the balance of public opinion has been moving toward the acceptance and legalization of marijuana. Nevertheless, the balance of science and medicine has been moving toward a broad agreement on marijuana’s harms and dangers,” he said.
Rev. Creech’s sentiments echo arguments also made by Nikolay Anguelov, Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Anguelov says studies show that decriminalization may be well-intended, but unfortunately, has had unintended consequences for youth.
“Today, some drug laws related to marijuana are easing. Twenty-five states have introduced decriminalization reforms, with 11 states allowing adult recreational use. Such reforms directly impact adults 21 years of age and older, but they also have an indirect effect on younger Americans,” says Anguelov. “Even though marijuana is still illegal for people under 21, the evidence is emerging that decriminalization is increasing the number of kids who consume weed illegally…Those who advocate for marijuana reform ignore the fact that looser laws promote marijuana use, especially by young and marginalized Americans who buy the drug in illegal markets.”
According to the N&O, AG Stein said, “We’re not saying this (smoking pot) is a good thing that people should do. We’re just trying to reduce the racial inequities in our criminal justice system.”
Creech said that he is concerned about racial disparities too. “But removing or reducing a legal standard that would increase marijuana use among youth hardly seems the right approach. We know how marijuana negatively impacts a teen’s brain. We know the potential for problems with addiction. We know smoking marijuana increases their risks for harder drug use. These scientific findings cannot be overstated. So why reduce the penalty and gamble with their futures by diminishing the focus on the harms, something decriminalization will certainly do? Contrary to myth, marijuana use can have some serious life-long health consequences,” he said.