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Violent arrests show Charlotte's struggles to adapt as legal, intoxicating cannabis flourishes

CMPD confronted two people at a bus stop in southwest Charlotte last week for allegedly smoking marijuana. That led to a violent arrest.
CMPD confronted two people at a bus stop in southwest Charlotte last week for allegedly smoking marijuana. That led to a violent arrest.

Last week, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police approached two people at a bus stop at South Tryon and Arrowood. They were allegedly smoking marijuana, which is illegal in North Carolina.

The encounter between the police and Anthony Lee and Christina Pierre turned violent as police tried to arrest them. At one point, a police officer punched Pierre several times to the leg with a closed fist, and she was hit at least once in the face.

CMPD said that was necessary to get her to stop resisting.

A viral video of the arrests has not only raised questions about excessive force — but also whether the initial encounter was justified.

Pierre’s attorney, Lauren Newton, said the two were smoking a legal cannabis product and that police should not have bothered them.

“When the two officers walked up and asked what they were smoking my client held up the THC-A cigarette that she purchased from a local smoke shop in Charlotte,” Newton said. “And it was almost as though the police were unwilling to believe her.”

THC-A is a new smokable cannabis product that’s legal and being sold in stores across North Carolina. Within a 10-minute drive of where Pierre and Lee were arrested, there are several stories selling it. Some stores have had billboards on the Interstate.

When THC-A is burned — from smoking, for instance — it converts to Delta 9 THC. That’s the active ingredient in marijuana that has mind-altering effects.

When smoked, THC-A also gets you high.

“Legal cannabis products and illegal marijuana are not distinguishable by sight or smell,” said Phil Dixon with UNC’s School of Government, who is an expert on North Carolina hemp laws.

To determine whether cannabis is illegal marijuana or legal THC-A, Dixon said, “You have to have a specific lab that our state crime lab doesn’t even (have).”

The federal farm bill in 2018 opened the door to hemp products, so long as they have less than 0.3% Delta 9 THC.

Soon, growers began finding new ways to pull psychoactive extracts from hemp, with new products such as Delta 8, which is usually placed in gummies in concentrated form. In the last 12 to 18 months, THC-A has become extremely popular.

Dixon said that’s created headaches for law enforcement.

For instance, there is currently no age limit for buying and possessing Delta 8 and THC-A. He said he and others want the courts to give police clear guidance about what law enforcement can and can’t do.

He said if police are only smelling what they believe is marijuana, that may no longer be enough.

“And alternatively and sort of relatively it can’t be probable cause to search or arrest someone if that’s all you have because there are so many of these legal products that look and smell just like it,” Dixon said.

In response to WFAE, CMPD said that if its officers see and smell someone smoking marijuana they have probable cause to initiate an interaction. But the department declined to say what officers would do next — and on the possibility that the marijuana cigarette wasn’t technically marijuana, at least as defined by state and federal law.

At-large City Council member Braxton Winston said he doesn’t want police making arrests or writing citations for possessing small amounts of marijuana under any circumstances.

He said THC-A has emphasized that point.

He added that it’s very difficult for police forces to analyze the “molecular structures” of cannabis.

“I think we need to go a different way,” he said.

The Charlotte City Council hasn’t had a public discussion with CMPD about how it should handle the new cannabis products.

Interviews with council members show that some are only vaguely aware of how complex marijuana enforcement has become.

Some had never heard of THC-A.

City Council member Renee Johnson said she still wants to trust the police to use their discretion.

But she doesn’t know what exactly they are supposed to do.

“There’s no way to tell,” Johnson said. “The CBD flower looks exactly like marijuana or so I’ve heard. I don’t think there is any way to tell because of the smell.”

She added, “As a policy we need to have that discussion because it helps our officers as well."

In the last decade, CMPD has taken a more hands-off approach to law enforcement, with an emphasis on mostly violent crime.

Overall arrests have fallen by half. And Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather has said his office won’t prosecute small drug possession charges.

But in recent weeks, residents have been complaining about quality of life issues, like public drinking, and urinating and defecating in public.

Council member Ed Driggs said he supports CMPD having more engagement with the public, with officers interacting with people to improve public behavior.

He said that can deter more serious crimes, and he notes that the man arrested at the bus stop was charged with having a concealed weapon without a permit.

But he said that legal cannabis is a wildcard.

“It does raise a real problem in a sense of a disconnect between the letter of the law and the practical reality,” Driggs said. “They can’t attack every instance of this. It’s arguably legal. And so on. So I think that’s a fair question.”

CMPD has asked a judge to release the police officer’s body camera footage from the encounter.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.