NC Bills Would Legalize Possessing Up To 4 Ounces Of Marijuana For Personal Use

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A Forsyth County legislator is sponsoring a Senate bill that would make it legal to possess up to four ounces of marijuana for personal use.

Senate Bill 791, and companion House Bill 994, would allow people to possess up to four ounces before before they could be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Sen. Paul Lowe (D-Forsyth), the bill’s primary sponsor, said he introduced the bill in an effort “to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. This is heading in the right direction.”

Currently, possession of one-half of an ounce or less of a controlled substance is a Class 3 misdemeanor. That is punishable by up to 20 days of an active jail sentence — which typically is suspended — or a requirement of community service.

By contrast, a Class 1 misdemeanor is punishable by up to 120 days of an active sentence.

The bills would exempt up to four ounces of marijuana from being considered a controlled substance.

The bills also would raise the weight of marijuana an individual can possess from 1.5 ounces to a pound before it qualifies as a Class 1 felony, which is punishable by up to five months’ active sentence period.

Jim O’Neill, district attorney for Forsyth County, said the bills should be “thoroughly vetted, and must include and consider the scientific community’s evidence of the damage caused to the developing adolescent brain caused by marijuana smoking.”

O’Neill said he considers Lowe “a friend and someone I truly respect, but to characterize four ounces of marijuana as a user amount would be absurd.”

“Conservatively speaking, four ounces of marijuana has a street value of $1,000 and can be broken down into about 120 marijuana cigarettes.”

The bills would leave the amount of hashish unchanged at no more than one-twentieth of an ounce to avoid a Class 1 misdemeanor, and no more than three-twentieths of an ounce to avoid a Class 1 felony.

Joining Lowe in sponsoring SB791 is Sens. Milton “Toby” Fitch Jr., D-Nash, and Valerie Foushee, D-Orange. Fitch, who was appointed to the Senate on March 23, is a retired Superior Court judge. The bill, introduced Thursday, was sent to the Senate rules committee.

HB994 is sponsored by Rep. Kelly Alexander Jr., D-Mecklenburg. The bill, also introduced Thursday, was sent to the House Judiciary committee. If approved by that committee, it would go to the Finance committee.

The laws would go into effect July 1 if approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and signed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

However, it’s unlikely either bill advances out of committee, in part given GOP legislative leaders’ focus on passing a non-amended state budget for 2018-19 and on school safety legislation. Those leaders also have said their goal is to end the current session by the Fourth of July weekend.

With respect to previous convictions, the bills allow individuals found guilty of possessing four ounces or less of marijuana to file a petition in Superior Court in the county in which they were convicted. There would be a $100 cost to file the petition.

A judge could conduct a hearing on the petition and determine whether an expunction of the conviction is warranted. If an expunction is granted, all law enforcement agencies would be required to expunge their records of the conviction as well.

O’Neill said that with the majority of murders and robberies in the local community “already drug related, why in heavens would we want to increase the number of targeted victims legally walking (with four ounces of marijuana) around every day.”

According to Leafbuyer, a pro-marijuana website, there are eight states — Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — that allow for legal recreational possession of marijuana. Those states limit how much can be possessed at one time.

“Federal law continues to prohibit marijuana sales and consumption, causing each state to craft laws and regulations governing their pot industry along with a unique framework,” according to Leafbuyer.

The website said that “limits on how much weed you have on your person, as opposed to the volume you can possess at home, comes down to the word intent.”

“In the eyes of the law, setting a limit on how much a person age 21 or older can possess while in public sends a clear message.

“Carry anything above this, and we’ll consider you more likely to be distributing the substance illegally. Or at least you’re a person with some suspicious behavior patterns.”

The two marijuana weight-limitation bills represent a different legislative effort than bills submitted in April 2017 that would legalize marijuana in North Carolina for medical purposes — Senate bills 579 and 649 and House Bill 185.

None of those medical marijuana bills advanced out of committee.

North Carolina is one of 20 states that does not have a form of a medical marijuana law or legalized marijuana use.