North Carolina prosecutors weigh in on DOJ reclassification of marijuana as less dangerous drug

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Thursday, May 23, 2024
NC prosecutors weigh in on reclassification of marijuana
Triangle-area prosecutors spoke to ABC11 about the potential impacts reclassifying marijuana will have on North Carolina's court system.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- In the wake of the Department of Justice's move last week to reclassify marijuana to a Schedule III drug -- down from Schedule I -- ABC11 is diving into the potential impacts on North Carolina's court system, and what it might mean for state law moving forward.

On Thursday, ABC11 sat down with two Triangle District Attorneys who said while their hands remain tied by state law, many prosecutors have already moved away from prioritizing lower-level marijuana charges.

"We have certainly seen a decline in how prosecutors offices and law enforcement statewide are prioritizing marijuana," Wake County DA Lorrin Freeman said.

Freeman oversees the most populous county in North Carolina. While her office continues to enforce marijuana-related law, the priority has shifted when it comes to drug crimes and the volume of related charges have dropped.

"I think you see it less certainly than you would have seen it 10 years ago. I think what you definitely are also seeing less is people being held in custody for small user amounts of marijuana," she said.

In Orange County, DA Jeff Nieman has seen a similar trend play out.

"By and large, most prosecutors are not just are not going to just ignore a law, let's say, but we can choose to prioritize and deemphasize. And that's something that we've been doing here for some time, and I don't think we're alone," he said.

Nieman believes deprioritizing lower-level marijuana charges -- and ultimately decriminalizing them altogether -- could help ease the burden on his prosecutors.

"I've got four prosecutors in this county that handle full time felonies. Each of them carries between 150 and 300 cases at any given time. We have about 14 trial sessions a year to try felonies in court. You do the math. There's no way we can possibly try every single one of those cases," Nieman said.

He also pointed out that his office has seen a large number of violent crimes tied to illegal marijuana, calling that a concerning side-effect.

"I think it's an argument for legalization," Nieman said. "There's a lot of violent crime is cropping up around the illegal marijuana trade, similar to about 100 years ago when there was another drug that was made illegal and a lot of violent crime cropped up around it. And that was alcohol."

In the wake of the DOJ's decision to reclassify marijuana -- and with 38 states having legalized the drug in some form -- many North Carolinians are wondering if that trend could soon reach North Carolina. Freeman thinks it's possible.

"I think the more that there are other states that, you know, either decriminalize it or authorize it for medical purposes, the more the federal government kind of gives the nod to that, the more likely it is that North Carolina is going to follow suit," she said.

Freeman added that she hopes any potential legislative change would be accompanied by public safety precautions alongside it, like new laws to combat "driving while high".

On the first day of this year's short legislative session, ABC11 asked Senate Leader Phil Berger if he'd bring a marijuana-related bill to the floor before this summer, to which he said it was possible.