Amid controversial arrest over THC cigarette, what’s legal in North Carolina?

CHARLOTTE — A controversial arrest outside of a Charlotte Bojangles all started with officers saying they smelled marijuana, but not all marijuana is treated equally in North Carolina law.

The arrest of Christina Pierre and Tony Lee went viral on social media after officers were seen using force to detain Pierre. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officers approached the couple because of marijuana, but the couple told the officers it was THCA that they had purchased legally at a nearby smoke shop.

So what’s legal, and what’s illegal when it comes to cannabis in North Carolina? There are two parts to that answer: the science behind the psychoactive chemicals in cannabis that can get you high, and the legal difference between marijuana and hemp-based products.

What is THC?

There are dozens of chemical compounds called “cannabinoids” in cannabis plants. Some of them can have physiological effects on people because of cannabinoid receptors in our brains that regulate things like respiratory and cardiovascular functions, and part of our immune systems.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the main cannabinoid that makes you feel high is Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or Delta-9 THC.

Researchers at the University of South Carolina say that Delta-9 THC “mimics the actions of endocannabinoids,” which affect the brain functions for appetite, learning, memory, anxiety, depression, pain, sleep, mood, body temperature, and immune response.

Delta-9 THC isn’t the only cannabinoid that produces psychoactive effects. USC studied Delta-8 THC and Delta-10 THC, saying the two compounds are “typically derived from hemp CBD” and are “less psychoactive” than Delta-9.

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is another cannabinoid that has become increasingly popular for allegedly helping with stress relief, ABC News reported earlier this year.

Additional studies are still looking into the uses of the 113 phytocannabinoids that have been found in cannabis plants, but not all cannabis plants have the same cannabinoids. One of those natural cannabinoids is tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, or THCA.

THCA and Delta-9 THC are technically two different compounds in the cannabis sativa plant, but according to the National Institute of Health, THCA can convert to Delta-9 THC when heated. Effectively, this means that heating or baking THCA will give the user at least some Delta-9 THC, producing psychoactive effects.

This is where the law comes in.

Delta 9 vs. THCA

The North Carolina Controlled Substances Act is what specifies what drugs are illegal in the state, and marijuana is listed as a Schedule VI controlled substance.

But in 2018, Congress passed a version of the farm bill that created new regulations specifically for hemp with Delta-9 THC. The law specified that hemp products are legal “with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

While NC law says marijuana is a controlled substance, it says that tetrahydrocannabinols can be legal as long as they’re “found in a product with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than three-tenths of one percent (0.3%) on a dry weight basis.”

That specification matters because hemp producers can now sell products that contain cannabinoids, as long as it’s not more than 0.3% Delta-9 THC.

When combined with the science behind converting THCA to Delta-9 THC, smoke shops are now stocked with hemp products that contain high levels of THCA, along with Delta-8 THC, Delta-10 THC, and more. A Google search for THCA in Charlotte returns results for over dozens of dispensaries and smoke shops selling hemp products like pre-rolled joints, vape cartridges, edibles, and THCA flower that looks indistinguishable from illegal marijuana.

Back in 2020, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather issued a memo about his office’s approach to drug possession cases, saying that simple possession cases would be referred to recovery agencies instead of criminal prosecution.

In the rest of North Carolina, possession of marijuana under 1.5 ounces is a misdemeanor charge. Possession of more than 1.5 ounces is a felony.

Regarding CMPD’s arrest, the department’s crime lab reported stated what they seized tested positive as marijuana containing THC.

Pierre’s attorney points out that the crime lab report doesn’t say whether it was tested for THCA.

Channel 9′s Joe Bruno spoke with a professor at the UNC School of Government who is an expert on the state’s marijuana laws.

He said that since THC is in both legal hemp and illegal marijuana, testing for the presence of THC only is not scientifically sound.

“It looks like they tested for the presence of quote-unquote THC, and detected THC, and therefore concluded it was marijuana,” said Phil Dixon teaching assistant professor at UNC School of Government. “Assuming that was what has happened, they tested only the presence of THC. That would not be a scientifically sound method to form an opinion about whether the substance was legal hemp or illegal marijuana.”

Bruno asked officials at CMPD if they tested for THCA and if their lab could tell the difference between legal hemp and illegal marijuana, but the department did not respond.

CMPD said Tuesday that if marijuana is illegal, they will continue to try to get it off the streets.

However, the Mecklenburg County district attorney typically doesn’t prosecute in those types of cases.

Pierre and Lee’s charges were dropped following their arrest.

(WATCH: Federal government cracks down on THC edible packaging that looks like kid-friendly snacks)

Andrew McMillan, wsoctv.com

Andrew McMillan is the Digital Content Manager for WSOC-TV.