The governor of North Carolina says he thinks a medical marijuana legalization bill “has an opportunity to pass” in the upcoming legislative session, and he also reiterated his support for broader decriminalization of cannabis possession, noting racial disparities in enforcement.
Gov. Roy Cooper (D) briefly spoke about the issue during an interview with WXII 12 that aired on Tuesday.
“I think medical marijuana has passed the Senate this past year, and I think that has an opportunity to pass,” he said. “I do believe that we should decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in that it has been applied in a discriminatory way.”
Medical cannabis legalization cleared the Senate in June, but House Republicans blocked it from advancing further in their chamber.
Cooper’s public support for decriminalization is a relatively recent development. He first openly backed the policy change in October, saying that it’s time to “end the stigma,” while separately announcing steps he’s taken to explore his options for independently granting relief to people with existing convictions.
Following President Joe Biden’s mass pardon announcement in October, which also involved a call to action for governors to provide state-level relief, Cooper said that he’s directed state attorneys to review pardon authority for marijuana offenses.
He spoke about the issue at a meeting of the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice that he convened, saying law enforcement “should be focused on stopping violent crime and drug trafficking and other threats to safe communities.”
The task force had previously recommended decriminalizing marijuana. The report from the panel, which is chaired by state Attorney General Josh Stein (D), also included a recommendation for the state to initiate a study on whether to more broadly legalize cannabis sales.
“North Carolina should take steps to end this stigma,” Cooper said following the president’s pardon proclamation. “I’ve also asked our lawyers to examine North Carolina law regarding simple possession of marijuana convictions and pardons to determine if there is action we can and should take.”
House Speaker Tim Moore (R) was among key lawmakers who downplayed the idea of enacting medical cannabis legislation this year, saying that “there are a lot of concerns” with the reform proposal that was sponsored by Sen. Bill Rabon (R).
A poll released in May found that 82 percent of North Carolina voters are in favor of legalizing medical cannabis—including 75 percent of Republicans, 87 percent of unaffiliated voters and 86 percent of Democrats.
A separate question found that 60 percent of voters back adult-use legalization.
The survey showed an increase in support for medical cannabis legalization since voters were prompted with the question earlier this year, with the results showing that with three in four say patients should have access to marijuana for medical use.
Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R), meanwhile, has acknowledged that opinions are shifting when it comes to marijuana in the state, and he said that Rabon specifically “for a long time has looked at the issue.”
Under current law, possessing more than half an ounce up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis is a class 1 misdemeanor, subject to up to 45 days imprisonment and a $200 fine. In 2019, there were 3,422 such charges and 1,909 convictions, with 70 percent of those convicted being nonwhite.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.