Jan 16, 2024 - News

Why cracking down on marijuana use in Mecklenburg County is so challenging

Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office

Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

In North Carolina, marijuana is not legal, but hemp products are — it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between the two, however. Local law enforcement is tasked with cracking down on marijuana offenses, but the local district attorney doesn’t prosecute some cases.

Why it matters: The juxtaposition underscores how the Charlotte area is one of the most perplexing places for pot regulation.

What they’re saying: “Smoke shops are popping up everywhere now,” says Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden, whose office is weighing how to address marijuana use. “What is legal and what’s not legal? And what can you have?… It is a very controversial issue.”

  • What’s more, users often say they can’t separate the high they get from something they bought at the store versus on the street.

Driving the news: In November, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officers approached two Bojangles employees in the Steele Creek area who were waiting for the bus, smoking what appeared to be weed. The couple told officers it was legal THC-A from a smoke shop; CMPD maintains the product was marijuana.

  • When officers attempted to detain the suspects, the altercation escalated and became physical.
  • A video of the arrest went viral. A female suspect was charged with assaulting an officer, although the DA dropped all charges against her. One officer was suspended for excessively hitting the woman.
  • The incident calls into question whether police should have confronted the couple at all.

[Go deeper: Charlotte police release body cam videos of viral arrest, 1 officer suspended for 40 hours]

Of note: When dropping the charges, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather tells Axios that other circumstances, including the negative perceptions from witnesses, made it likely a trial would fail. He indicates the amount of THC in what they were smoking was not his main concern.

Flashback: In 2018, the federal Farm Bill legalized the growing and selling of hemp. Products can contain no more than .3% of the psychoactive component of marijuana, Delta-9 THC.

  • After that, Merriweather says, an officer’s testimony was no longer enough to take marijuana offenses to court. Most evidence had to be sent to a private laboratory to determine the exact percentage of THC, which was costly.

In 2020, as it was becoming more challenging to prove in court whether a leafy substance was illegal marijuana, the district’s attorney’s office was concurrently dealing with a backlog of cases because of COVID-19.

  • A shocking 120 homicides were committed in Charlotte in 2020. Yet jury members were listening to years-old cases over small amounts of controlled substances, Merriweather recalls. The DA announced in November 2020 that he’d dismiss simple possession drug cases.
  • Currently, there are about 350 pending homicide cases. Merriweather says the drug policy, which is now permanent, has allowed his office to spend more time on impactful cases and keep in touch with victims and their families. It frees up resources to go after drug traffickers.

What they’re saying: Merriweather says his approach to marijuana and other non-violent drug offenses was solely a decision to prioritize his office’s resources. He made that clear to the county’s law enforcement agencies when it went into effect, he says.

  • “Police whose obligation is to patrol our streets is different than mine,” he adds.

Still, Sheriff McFadden says he is mindful not to clog the court system. He tells Axios deputies will charge a person with a felony if they bring marijuana into jail because it’s contraband. “Out on the street, it may be a little different,” he says.

  • Deputies can issue a misdemeanor if a person has a small amount of marijuana on them.
  • The sheriff, an elected position, has announced in the past he wouldn’t go after certain violations. Last year he enacted a policy to not pull drivers over dark window tinting, broken tail lights or other non-moving offenses. The change is intended to prevent racial disparities in traffic stops.

CMPD chief Johnny Jennings, whom the city manager hired, said in a press conference he expects his officers to address open marijuana use. If people don’t want officers to, he says, “then make it legal.”

The big picture: CMPD is short-staffed by hundreds of officers. When they make arrests, officers are removed from patrol duty for hours. Some say they shouldn’t spend time looking for marijuana.

  • But there is mounting pressure for CMPD to deal with “quality of life” concerns, such as public intoxication. It’s an issue city council is expected to tackle this year.

Zoom out: Some state legislators are attempting to regulate hemp products to ease confusion and keep it out of the hands of the youth.

  • Republican and Democratic lawmakers have proposed legislation to ban the sale of hemp-derived products to anyone under the age of 18. So far, it has stalled.

What’s next: McFadden says all local law enforcement leaders need a meeting to “get on the same page” about how they approach marijuana and THC products.

  • He says they need to host a town hall to let the public know how it will move forward. “We all need to be consistent,” he adds.
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