Marijuana Decriminalized in North Carolina?

The website of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) is a popular source for information about marijuana laws nationwide. However, its page on North Carolina marijuana laws contains some very misleading information.

It states: "The state has decriminalized marijuana to some degree. Typically, decriminalization means no prison time or criminal record for first-time possession of a small amount for personal consumption. The conduct is treated like a minor traffic violation."

Is this true? Has North Carolina decriminalized marijuana?

The simplest answer is NO.

Marijuana possession, like other drug possession charges, falls under N.C.G.S. § 90‑95(a)(3). We learn from N.C.G.S. § 90-94 that marijuana is a Schedule VI controlled substance. The sentencing guidelines for possession of a Schedule VI controlled substance, found at N.C.G.S. § 90-95(d)(4), state that those found guilty of possession of a Schedule VI substance "shall be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor, but any sentence of imprisonment imposed must be suspended and the judge may not require at the time of sentencing that the defendant serve a period of imprisonment as a special condition of probation."

It further states, however, that:

a) Possession of more than one half ounce (1/2 oz.) of marijuana or one twentieth of an ounce (1/20 oz.) of hashish is a Class 1 misdemeanor.
b) Possession of more than one and one half ounces (1 1/2 oz.) or marijuana or three twentieths of an ounce (3/20 oz.) of hashish, or possession of marijuana that contains "synthetic tetrahydrocannabinols or tetrahydrocannabinols isolated from the resin of marijuana" is a Class 1 felony.

So here's the rundown of what's wrong with NORML's statement, included above.

1) It is true that the statute specifies no prison time for a first-time charge of possession of a small amount of marijuana.

2) However, it fails to specify that "a small amount" means only less than one half ounce of marijuana, and that there are much stiffer penalties for possession of slightly larger quantities of marijuana, or for possession of hashish or substances with synthetic or enhanced THC content.

3) Additionally, it is not entirely true that there will be no criminal record for a first-time charge of possession of a small amount of marijuana. This is only the case in certain circumstances, for instance, if the defendant successfully completes a court-approved drug diversion program, leading to a dismissal of charges, or if the defendant has the conviction expunged at a later date.

4) A charge of possession of less than one half ounce of marijuana is "treated like a minor traffic violation" in the sense that the defendant is often given a citation, which means no formal arrest process, no appearance before a magistrate, and no bond requirement. The defendant is simply required to appear in court on a later date. However, in North Carolina, "minor traffic violations" are infractions, or non-criminal offenses. In North Carolina, marijuana possession is absolutely a criminal offense! It is, as noted above, at least a Class 3 misdemeanor, and a conviction will appear on a defendant's criminal record unless certain steps are taken.

Why are these discrepancies significant?

1) Many people who are not first offenders or whose charges exceed a Class 3 misdemeanor may be surprised to find that "decriminalization" does not apply to them - at all.

2) One minor mistake in compliance with a court-approved drug diversion program can result in the reinstatement of charges and a conviction resulting in a criminal record.

3) Criminal records checks can have a huge effect on your employment prospects and many employers actively avoid hiring applicants with past drug offenses. In today's employment market, a conviction of even a minor drug offense can be a significant obstacle to employment.

4) The federal government will suspend student loan aid to students who are convicted of drug offenses while receiving student loan aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965. A first offense for possession will result in a one-year period of ineligibility for many federal student loans.

Don't treat your possession charge like a traffic ticket! While you will avoid jail time for a first offense, that first offense may still cost you your dream job or your student loans.

I represent clients with misdemeanor marijuana possession charges, including first offenders. I help my clients fight these charges and to obtain outcomes that won't disrupt their lives or futures. Feel free to give me a call at (919) 886-5005 or email me at richard.d.allen.esq (at) gmail (dot) com today to discuss your case. All discussions are completely confidential.