For years now marijuana users have used the phrase “420” to help identify themselves as members of the pot subculture  (not my definition, see this wiki link for more details).  But that term is likely to soon be replaced by a much more relevant, and to some, more important number.  That number is 12-6, and it symbolizes the date that recreational marijuana use first became legal in the United States.  Read this article for all the smokey details.  With all this talk about marijuana in the news I thought it would be a good time to discuss how North Carolina punishes marijuana crimes.  Additionally, ill discuss some recent legislation that, though not nearly as drastic as that passed in Colorado and Washington State, does show that our lawmakers are potentially softening on the issue of marijuana.

Lets start with the most serious of marijuana charges, trafficking.  All drug trafficking charges in North Carolina are based solely on the weight of the drug in possession.  Potentially, a person can be convicted of trafficking the same “pile” of drugs 5 different ways; by sale, by manufacturing, by delivery, by transportation, and by possession.  Trafficking in marijuana is grouped into 4 different weight categories, each progressively resulting in a harsher sentence.  Bottom level trafficking in marijuana has a weight range of 10-50 pounds.  It carries a mandatory active prison sentence of 25-39 months.  The second level of trafficking in marijuana has a weight range of 50-2,000 pounds and carries a mandatory active prison sentence of 35-51 months.  The next level has a weight range of 2,000-10,000 pounds and has a mandatory active sentence of 70-93 months.  The most serious marijuana trafficking charge is reserved for weights exceeding 10,000 pounds and will put a person in prison for 175-222 months.

After trafficking, our laws generally treat the sale of marijuana as the next most serious offense.  Sale of any drug does not consider its weight; the state simply has to show that a sale or delivery of the controlled substance took place.  Sale of marijuana is punished as a class H felony which is the second least severe felony punishment class.  Depending on the person’s record, he could face a sentence ranging from 4 months all the way up to 25 months.  There is no mandatory active time for sale of marijuana, and often, again record dependent, a probationary sentence is possible.

Possession of marijuana is punished differently based on the weight of the drugs in possession.  Possession of less than 1/2 oz. of marijuana is a class 3 misdemeanor which is the least severe misdemeanor punishment on our books.  Possession of more than 1/2 oz. but less than 1 1/2 oz. is a class 1 misdemeanor.  Possession of more than 1 1/2 oz. is a class I felony.

It is often said that marijuana is a gateway drug in that it leads people to try harder, more dangerous controlled substances.  Im not sure about its gateway effect on the individual, but I have seen that it is a gateway drug into the criminal justice system.  I’ve seen countless criminal records start with a conviction for a small amount of marijuana.   More and more employers are refusing to hire people with even the smallest marijuana blemish on their record.  The result is a cycle that I see time and again.  The person can not get work so he then resorts to selling marijuana or other drugs to pay bills, which is far more serious under our system of laws.  Then, eventually he pulls prison time for selling and learns how to commit real crimes.  And the cycle goes on and on until the person is serving a 10+  year prison sentence as a habitual felon.  All starting from a class 3 simple possession of marijuana when the defendant was young.

Whether the cycle above was motivation to our lawmakers to make a change I don’t know.  But they have recently made a simple, but important change to our marijuana possession laws (and possession of drugs in general).  Under the modified General Statute 90-96 a first time offender charged with possession of a controlled substance MUST be given the chance to participate in a Deferral and Dismissal program.  In this program the defendant is placed on a term of probation and must meet all the obligations that come with probation.  This could be a curfew, community service, drug testing, paying fines and court costs etc.  If they complete this term of probation the charge is dismissed.  In theory this should stop the cycle above before it starts.  The marijuana charge will not appear on the defendant’s record and should not be an obstacle in finding a job.  Only time will tell if this simple tweak to our laws will prevent the cycle that sends so many young people to prison.