Enforcing Marijuana Laws in Charlotte: Street weed vs. legal cannabis

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — Charlotte Mecklenburg Police say officers are not trained to know the difference between legal cannabis and street weed. There are questions about the marijuana enforcement policy after a viral video shows a physical altercation between police and a woman officers believed to be smoking marijuana.

At Crowntown Cannabis, customers can buy a variety of THC-a flowers. Mike Sims, co-owner of Crowntown, says he has a menu of options that have less than 0.3% THC, making them legal to buy and sell under federal law.

“You cannot tell the difference between hemp and what is known as marijuana; it simply comes down to the level of the Delta-9 THC content,” Sims said.

Some police departments use a field test to detect the presence of THC. Drug sniffing dogs are also able to detect cannabis terpenes, but they do not have the ability to know when the 0.3% THC threshold is reached and therefore are unable to distinguish the difference between street weed and legal cannabis.

“There’s no accurate field test to be able to tell the difference, and there’s a lot of issues in testing their laboratories as well; it’s very inaccurate,” Sims said. “There are times where we sent off 10 samples of the same exact flower and we got 10 [different] results back.”

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The lack of standard testing means marijuana enforcement depends on what officer you encounter and where. In Christina Pierre’s case, what started as officers believing they smelled weed at a bus stop on West Arrowood Road turned into a physical altercation and a viral video showing an officer hitting Pierre multiple times in the thigh while trying to arrest her. Pierre claims she purchased the substance at a smoke shop legally.

“I don’t know that there’s an easy legislative fix if we’re going to have a world of legal cannabis products and a parallel world of illegal cannabis products and they look and smell and taste and have effects that are identical, that’s tough,” Phil Dixon, Teaching Assistant Professor; Director, Public Defense Education at UNC Chapel Hill said. “On one-on-one end, you could legalize everything that’s a fix or you could outlaw everything on the other on the other extreme, that’s a fix. But what would work in the middle to make all this stuff work? I’m not sure.”

A spokeswoman for CMPD says the department, “does not have a directive addressing how officers should know the difference between marijuana and hemp sold at a smoke shop.” Chief Jennings says the department will be taking a closer look at the policy.

“At some point, we have to always look at what is when we get out what is our purpose, right? What is our goal here? Is it to simply make an arrest for marijuana, which we rarely do, or is it we feel like this interaction is going to make that community safer?” Chief Jennings said.

Advocates say the gray area opens the door for selective enforcement and bias. That’s why Sims says he supports NC House Bill 539 which would regulate hemp-derived products.

“We need more clarity. The 2018 farm bill simply stated marijuana is defined as the Delta-9 THC content and that’s awesome,” Sims said. “That leaves the door open for so many of these amazing products, but it also leaves the door open for interpretation which is a huge deal when you’re talking about someone’s life and livelihood that can be decided over an incorrect test or someone’s interpretation.”

Sims is currently dealing with police in Columbia, SC who charged his employee with marijuana distribution because she simply worked at a cannabis store.

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“People are evicted from their apartments because maintenance people came in and found legal CBD products. I’ve heard people losing their job and at my store in South Carolina, one of my employees, is facing very serious charges over this same exact thing,” Sims said. “She was charged with possession of marijuana. They ultimately shut our store down for nine days. This is over something that was a federally legal product that had been tested three or four times prior to going in the store.”

Sims says he tells customers to use discretion when consuming THC-flowers in public.

“We just tell our customers ‘be very careful where you consume this.’ You still face that possibility of facing charges,” Sims said. “They say we’re innocent till proven guilty, but I feel like it’s opposite. I feel like we’re guilty immediately by having [thc-a],” Sims said.

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