The legality is marijuana is currently a hot topic and important question. Although North Carolina remains hesitant to reform, various states have implemented wide ranging legalization laws. Additionally, federal legalization was proposed in the US House for the first time recently and is thought to be a topic for review with the new incoming administration. Also, with the recent passage of federal and North Carolina law permitting the growth, processing, shipment, and sale of hemp and hemp derivatives, there are a growing number of questions related to the legality of cannabis. Our attorneys routinely represent individuals charged with criminal marijuana offenses as well as businesses engaged in the lawful sale of hemp products. The following FAQs are intended to help individuals understand the differences between marijuana and hemp and what is permissible and impermissible in North Carolina.
What are the different marijuana possession charges in North Carolina?
As a reminder, marijuana and hemp are both cannabis. However, marijuana and hemp are different varieties of the Cannabis Sativa L. plant. As a general matter and without getting into the specifics of testing methods, hemp must contain 0.3% or less total Tetrahydrocannabinol (“THC”). Hemp is a legal agricultural commodity. Marijuana is an illegal controlled substance under both North Carolina and federal law.
Under North Carolina law, individuals can be charged with:
- Misdemeanor possession of marijuana (less than 1.5 oz)
- Felony Possession of Marijuana (1.5 oz – 10lbs; one-twentieth of an ounce of marijuana resin extract (hash, wax, shatter, vape, etc.) or any amount of synthetic THC)
- Felony Possession with Intent to Sell and/or Deliver
- Felony Trafficking of Marijuana (more than 10 pounds)
Marijuana remains an illegal federal controlled substance as well. Federal marijuana misdemeanor and felony prosecution applies for offenses committed on federal property, including the Capitol grounds and the mall within DC, as well as all national parks and military property nationwide, and other land under federal control. Federal marijuana laws also apply to offenses involving interstate commerce and importation from other countries.
How will I be punished for selling marijuana?
It depends whether you are charged in state or federal court and how much marijuana you are charged with selling. The following lists provide helpful guidance.
North Carolina Possession Sentences
- Less than 0.5 oz: Class 3 misdemeanor subject to a fine up to $200, probation, or up to 20 days in jail/
- 0.5 – 1.5 oz: Class 1 misdemeanor subject to a fine in the court’s discretion, probation, or up to 120 days in jail.
- 1.5 oz – 10 lbs; one-twentieth of an ounce of marijuana resin extract or any amount of synthetic THC: Class I felony charge subject to a fine, probation, or up to 24 months in jail.
North Carolina Marijuana Sale/Trafficking Sentences
- 10-50 lbs: Class H felony punishable by 25-30 months in jail, and/or $5,000 fine.
- 50-2,000 lbs: Class G felony punishable by 25-42 months, and/or $25,000 fine.
- 2,000-10,000 lbs: Class F felony punishable by 70-84 months and/or $50,000 fine.
- Over 10,000 lbs: Class D felony punishable by 175-219 months in jail, and/or $200,000 fine.
- Selling within 1,000 feet of a school, child care or park: Class E felony punishable by up to 88 months in jail.
- Selling to age 13 – 16 or someone who is pregnant: Class D felony punishable by up to 204 months in jail.
- Selling to age 13 and under: Class C felony charge punishable by up to 231 months in jail.
Federal Marijuana Possession Sentences
Possession of marijuana is punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction. For a second conviction, the penalties increase to a 15-day mandatory minimum sentence with a maximum of two years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500. Subsequent convictions carry a 90-day mandatory minimum sentence and a maximum of up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
Federal Marijuana Distribution Sentences
Distribution of a small amount of marijuana, without payment, is treated as possession. Manufacture or distribution of less than 50 plants or 50 kilograms of marijuana is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. For 50-99 plants or 50-99 kilograms the penalty increases to not more than 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million if an individual, $5 million if other than an individual for the first offense. Manufacture or distribution of 100-999 plants or 100-999 kilograms carries a penalty of 5 – 40 years in prison and a fine of $2-$5 Million. For 1000 plants or 1000 kilograms or more, the penalty increases to 10 years – life in prison and a fine of $4-$10 Million.
Is hemp legal in North Carolina?
Yes, subject to very specific regulations. In order to be legal, hemp and hemp products (including CBD) must contain less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which is the active ingredient in marijuana that creates the feeling of being high. Subject to certain administrative licensing and registration requirements through the North Carolina hemp pilot program and federal rules released by the USDA as well as the FDA, it is legal to cultivate, process, transport, sell, and possess hemp and hemp products.
Is CBD legal in North Carolina?
Yes. Cannabidiol (“CBD”) and other cannabinoids (excluding THC) derived from hemp are legal in North Carolina. Proponents of CBD products claim an array of health benefits including treatment for seizures, arthritis, pain-relief, and anxiety all without the impairing effect of THC. CBD is often infused in cosmetic products like lip balms and oils, added to foods (although CBD containing foods are not currently permissible per FDA guidelines) like honey and gummies, and is even contained in an FDA approved drug, Epidiolex, which is used to treat epilepsy.
Are THC vapes legal in North Carolina?
No. Vaping and cartridges or using other forms of marijuana resin extract (hash, wax, dabs, shatter, etc.) in other ways is illegal in North Carolina and is punishable as a felony for possession of more than one-twentieth of an ounce.
If hemp is legal, will I be protected against employment drug testing?
Yes. Or at least you should be under the Lawful Use of Lawful Products, N.C.G.S. § 95-28.2. This law prohibits employers from refusing to hire, terminating, or otherwise discrimination against a candidate or employee who engages or has engaged in the lawful use of lawful products off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours and the use does not adversely affect the employee’s job performance or the safety of other employees.
Since hemp is now a legal substance under both federal and state law, employees who use hemp products during nonworking hours off the employer’s premises arguably fall under this law’s protection. Although hemp and CBD contain low levels of THC, the permissible trace amounts of THC may be enough to result in a positive drug test. The problem facing employers and employees is that a positive THC test is generally unable to distinguish between illegal marijuana use and legal use of hemp and hemp products.
Can I grow hemp in my backyard?
No. Under state and federal laws, industrial hemp growers must be issued a license to participate in the industrial hemp pilot program. The Industrial Hemp Commission is responsible for developing rules and regulations for participating in the program.
How much CBD is legal?
While NC hemp license holders are required to report acreage, weight, type, and storage locations to the Hemp Commission, there is not currently any state or federal prohibition on the amount of hemp or CBD an individual may possess as long as other licensing, registration, and other applicable administrative reporting requirements are met.
How will police know if the hemp or CBD product is legal?
Unfortunately, individuals using hemp and CBD products may find themselves facing criminal prosecution. Although the use and possession of hemp and CBD is not illegal, law enforcement officials sometimes have a hard time telling the difference between hemp and marijuana which is still illegal in all forms in North Carolina. The confusion is understandable given that hemp flower, which can be smoked by CBD users, looks and even smells like marijuana. Further, even though hemp and CBD products can contain only 0.3% or less total THC, these low levels can still test positive on a police officer’s field test. Hemp users should also be concerned that drug tests may return a positive result.
Because legal hemp and CBD are very new to the market, police officers may not yet be trained on distinguishing the difference between hemp and marijuana. Until that happens we can reasonably expect to see a rise in the number of arrests and prosecution of individuals and businesses that use or sell hemp products. It is in your interest the have a criminal defense attorney experienced in this specific area of the law.
Can my hemp products be seized by law enforcement?
It is certainly possible. As discussed above, law enforcement has an understandably difficult time distinguishing between illegal marijuana and legal hemp and hemp derivative products. Our firm has seen situations were police have seized permissible hemp products mistakenly believe them to be contraband. In those situations, your best course of action is to get an attorney involved who understands the issues. There are a number of best practices our firm has helped clients implement to help prevent this type of situation from occurring. Among other preventative measures, it is recommended that you have on hand any product label, or certificate of analysis for any hemp or hemp-derived product when you are in possession of these items in public places to show a law enforcement officer if you are stopped or the product is confiscated.
What if I was charged with a crime because of CBD in North Carolina?
Contact a criminal defense attorney experienced with hemp and CBD issues. The attorneys at Dysart Willis Houchin & Hubbard are available 24/7 to talk to you about your case and how we can help.