Shoresides News

Hosted ByRend Smith

A local solutions journalism podcast by and for BIPOC communities in coastal North Carolina. Through news stories, interviews, updates, and special programs we keep you engaged with local news from across the region.

Wilmington Marijuana Arrests Persist Despite Changing Laws

Unsure about North Carolina’s changing marijuana laws and whether you can still get into trouble? You’re not alone. That’s why Shoresides is analyzing police records to uncover who’s still being penalized for marijuana possession and why.

In May, the federal government advanced a measure that would take marijuana off the list of most restricted drugs. But in North Carolina, the situation is more complex. Small amounts of recreational marijuana have been decriminalized for decades, making it quasi-legal to carry a half-ounce or less and pay a $200 fine. Police officers have the option to issue citations for larger quantities that carry heftier fines. Moreover, “hemp” stores in North Carolina now openly sell hemp products containing supposedly legal amounts of Delta 9 THC, and there’s an ongoing effort–Senate Bill 711– to legalize marijuana here for medical use.

Despite all the progress, marijuana enforcement remains a concern for community members, particularly in cities like Wilmington, where officers filed several hundred marijuana charges per year. Public records obtained by Shoresides show that from 2016 to 2023, the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) filed over 5,000 marijuana charges, with 84% of those filed as misdemeanors and 70% categorized as being for marijuana possession or paraphernalia. All of the charges provided by WPD were for more than a half-ounce, suggesting the department may have stopped penalizing people for carrying less. A request to WPD for clarification hasn’t been answered yet.

Those who were charged, though, were unlikely to be let go. Only 1,767 charges filed by WPD officers resulted in citations, while 3,275 resulted in arrests, making a Wilmington marijuana arrest about twice as likely to occur as a marijuana ticket.

*The first graph shows the racial breakdown for marijuana citations in Wilmington from 2016 to 2023 and the second for arrests.
W – White
B – Black or African American
H – Hispanic or Latino
I – American Indian or Alaskan Native
A – Asian or Pacific Islander
O -Other

In October 2016, for instance, a 12-year-old identified as an African-American male was arrested for marijuana possession and “paraphernalia,” at Williston Middle School. (Paraphernalia can be anything from a plastic baggie to a glass pipe.) In July 2023, a 33-year-old identified as a white female employed by John Metts Insurance, according to a submitted police report, was arrested on roughly the same charges at a local hotel.
Port cities like Wilmington have reputations as party hubs, attracting tourists, retirees and others looking to have fun, likely making cannabis use ubiquitous across all demographics. Most Americans after all–nine out of ten–believe cannabis should be legal for recreational and medical use. Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo has called marijuana charges a “waste of jail space and court time.

Disturbingly, though, the data reveals a pernicious problem, one that seems to come up everywhere pot remains illegal: a racial disparity in enforcement. In Wilmington, Blacks represented 64% of those arrested despite comprising only 16% of the city’s population. Per capita, Blacks were five times more likely to be cited for a cannabis violation than Whites and eight times more likely to be arrested for it.

According to Shoresides’ analysis, the majority of those penalized for marijuana by WPD were also young and perhaps en route somewhere. Their average age was 29 and they were most likely to encounter police on busy Wilmington thoroughfares like South College Road, 17th Street, Market Street, North Front Street and Carolina Beach Road.

Marijuana arrests and convictions can lead to job loss, housing instability and other challenges that make it harder for individuals and families to build strong communities. Over the course of a six-month investigative project, Shoresides will continue to explore how marijuana enforcement impacts coastal North Carolinians and strive to offer guidance on navigating and avoiding entanglement in the criminal justice system for marijuana-related offenses.