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Butterfield: Legalize marijuana and expunge pot convictions

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Rep. G.K. Butterfield says Congress should remove federal restrictions on marijuana and North Carolina should legalize adult use and purge pot possession from criminal records. 

Butterfield, D-Wilson, said Wednesday that he’s “evolved over the years on this” and recounted his experience hearing marijuana cases as a Superior Court judge in Wilson and surrounding counties. 

“I cannot tell you the number of cases I presided over that dealt with one tenth of one gram of marijuana,” he said. “I had to sentence people for having drug paraphernalia. For those of you who don’t know, that is rolling paper that you get in the 7-Eleven.” 

The comments came during The Wilson Times' virtual candidate forum for the 1st Congressional District. Butterfield, who's seeking a ninth term, noted it was the first time he's publicly endorsed legalization. His Republican opponent, Sandy Smith of Winterville, didn't participate in the forum due to a schedule conflict.

In September, Democratic House leaders postponed a vote on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which would curtail federal cannabis prohibition. Removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and expunging federal convictions would leave states to set their own policies. 

“I will call on our legislature to have this debate in the next session and to decide whether or not we want to do it in North Carolina,” Butterfield said. 

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and 33 states allow medicinal cannabis use with a doctor’s authorization. The neighboring state of Virginia decriminalized simple possession in July. 

Voters in four states — New Jersey, Arizona, Montana and South Dakota — will weigh in on recreational use during the Nov. 3 general election, according to the congressional news service Roll Call. In Mississippi, voters will decide whether or not to allow medicinal marijuana. 

“Many other states are beginning to legalize marijuana, and it’s time for North Carolina to take up some bigger problems such as equality and education, such as raising the minimum wage and bringing people out of poverty and building better schools and highways and deploying broadband to underserved communities and helping people who are food insecure and creating jobs, creating green jobs,” Butterfield said. “That’s where our energy needs to be. For us to spend tens of millions of dollars on enforcing marijuana laws, I think, is not a good use of our resources.” 

Drawing on his judicial career, Butterfield said expunging marijuana convictions from people’s criminal records is an essential part of cannabis law reform. He cited the example of a 17-year-old being caught with cannabis during a traffic stop and the charge preventing him from securing a job at age 37.

“That person could be denied the opportunity to get gainful employment,” he said. “Let’s decriminalize it, let’s expunge those records and let’s focus on some other big problems that we have as a state and as a nation.”

Gov. Mike Easley appointed Butterfield to the N.C. Supreme Court in 2001 following 13 years on the Superior Court bench. Butterfield won a 2004 special election for the 1st Congressional District seat and has been reelected since. 

As one of 10 representatives named chief deputy whips, Butterfield is a member of the House’s Democratic leadership team. He served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus from 2015-17.

Court-ordered redistricting in November 2019 that changed the 2nd Congressional District’s contours also reshaped the 1st District for 2020, dropping Durham and adding Nash County and a swath of western Wilson County. 

North Carolina lawmakers will use census results to redraw the state’s congressional district maps ahead of the 2022 elections.

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